Court directs state to get forest and wildlife clearances
The Karnataka High Court has put a stay on the ongoing construction of dams by the state government for diverting water from the west-flowing Mahadayi and its tributaries to the east-flowing river Malaprabha in the eco-sensitive Western Ghats region bordering Karnataka and Goa. The court ordered that all construction work should be stopped till the Karnataka government gets mandatory forest clearance.
The court issued the order on February 28 on a public interest petition filed by Ravendra Kumar Saini of Paryavarni, a Belgaum-based non-profit working for protection and conservation of the Western Ghats forests. The petitioner had said that the state government had been carrying out illegal construction work in the Kankumbi Forest Range of Belgaum Forest Division for the past two years, violating the Forest Conservation Act.
Since 1995, Karnataka and Goa have been engaged in disputes over sharing of waters of the Mahadayi and its tributaries. The Mahadayi originates in the Western Ghats and flows 35 km in Karnataka and 52 km in Goa. The river, described as the lifeline of Goa, is the water source for the Mandovi Wildlife Sanctuary.
Construction of diversion dams was taking place close to the sanctuary. “Apart from violating the forest conservation laws, the Karnataka government also violated the Wildlife Protection Act,’’ points out Saini. Since the river is flowing into a wildlife sanctuary, and the area being major tiger corridor, it’s mandatory for the state to take permission from the National Board for Wildlife before starting any construction work for diverting water, he says.
The Karnataka government’s argument was that construction was carried out only in the revenue land and not in the forestland. It also contended that it was trying to provide drinking water to Hubli, Dharward and other 10 towns. It also argued that even when the state was entitled to get a much higher share from Mahadayi waters, only a small portion, 3.5 thousand million cubic feet (tmc) would be diverted for the project.
But the petitioner argued that the water sharing issue was before the Mahadayi Inter-state Water Dispute tribunal, and the case before the High Court was pertaining only to violation of forest and wildlife conservation laws.
According to activists in Karnataka, the state government is trying to divert water under the pressure of the sugarcane lobby. “They are very strong and pose threat to those who take up these issues,” says Srihari Kugaji, an activist. Once a perennial river, the Malaprabha has dried up and become a seasonal river due to extensive deforestation and over-exploitation of river water for growing sugar cane in the catchment areas of the river, he points out. Malaprabha river flows through the twin industrial cities of Hubli and Dharwad and others districts in the northern part of the state.
In the past few years, there have been strong agitations in the north-eastern districts of Karnataka for water, mainly for irrigating sugar cane. With the growth of sugar industry in the region, more and more farmers have turned to growing water-intensive sugar cane. The Renuka Sagar Dam constructed over Malaprabha river has failed to fulfill the water requirements due to seepage in its the left bank canal and unauthorized pumping of water by the farmers. If the government wanted to provide drinking water to Hubli and Dharward, both these cities have water bodies which could be used for this purpose, says Kugaji.
Karnataka had initially proposed construction of 12 diversion dams on all the tributaries of the Mahadayi, which would have led to submergence of large tracts of pristine forestland in the Western Ghats, points out Saini. As it was strongly opposed by Goa and it would require the Centre’s clearance, the proposal was shelved by the state.
When Goa opposed diverting of the river, Karnataka came up with new proposal for diverting its two tributaries of the Mahadayi, the Kalsa and the Banduri, within Karnataka. Goa raised strong objections against this too since these two rivers contribute a major chunk of water to the Mahadayi.
Apart from directing the Karnataka government to get forest clearance, the court has also ordered the state to get permission from the National Board for Wildlife for diverting water from a river which flows into a wildlife sanctuary.