Forest Advisory Committee · Ministry of Environment and Forests · Western Ghats

How much does the Kasturirangan Committee understand about Water Issues in Western Ghats?

The Ministry of Environment and Forests constituted the Western Ghats Experts Ecology Panel (WGEEP) in March 2010 under the Chairmanship of Prof. Madhav Gadgil. The Panel submitted its report on 31st August 2011. Here on, the report was kept under wraps by the MoEF and only after strict orders from the CIC and High Court was it released to the public in May 2012.

On Aug 17, 2012, MoEF set up the High Level Working Group (HLWG) under the Chairmanship of Dr. K. Kasturirangan to study recommendations of this Report. Members of this Committee include Sunita Narain, Prof. C.R. Babu, J.M. Mauskar, Prof. Kanchan Chopra, Shri Darshan Shankar etc. The HLWG was to look into the recommendations of the WGEEP report and the comments from the various stakeholders. The very constitution of the HLWG raised suspicions that this has been formed to dilute the recommendations of the WGEEP. The functioning of the HLWG left a lot to be desired, it refused to give time to listen to the affected people at many places. On April 17, 2013, after a number of extensions, the HLWG submitted its report. 

It seems the HLWG Report (HLWGR) has worked hard to hugely dilute the WGEEP reccomendations. In many cases, HLWG report has made the recommendations of the WGEEP report ineffective. No wonder, Prof. Madhav Gadgil himself has said: “ The initial impression (about HLWG Report) is that there are differences of approach in protecting the ecology of the region. The WGEEP report talks about the facts and we have pointed out that misgovernance is a major issue affecting the ecology of the Western Ghats. This was totally neglected in the new report, which calls for more role for bureaucracy. Providing more power and money to bureaucracy is like giving it to ‘Dusshasana’, and it is a wrong approach” . (


Dilution of WGEEPs strong recommendations is highlighted in the case of 200 MW Gundia Hydel Project in Karnataka and 163 MW Athirappilly Hydel Project in Kerala. While WGEEP Report has categorically rejected these projects based on their severe impacts on ecology and communities, the HLWG has refrained from doing so. The HLWG Report has gone ahead to recommend a few largely irrelevant, measures, while actually giving OK to these projects. Whatever suggestions of review HLWGR has given, the governments would be happy to do the necessary paper work and show that they have done that. The authors of the HLWG report seemed happy to toe the lines that government wants, rather than do justice to the mandate given to them. This was unexpected as both the projects not only have severe impact on ecology, but are also facing stiff and sustained local opposition. The HLWG Report does not seem to give any value or try to understand the reasons behind these local protests.

HLWGR has certified that Athirappilly Project is required for Kerala for peaking power. This is very strange certificate. Do we have an assessment of how much of the power generation from Kerala Hydro projects (incidentally Kerala has one of the highest proportion of installed power capacity under hydro projects, compared to any other state) today is providing peaking power? None. Do we have any credible attempt at ensuring more optimum peaking power generation from existing hydro projects in Kerala? None. Do we have any credible attempt at demand side management in Kerala to manage the peak load requirements? None. Have the KSEB and Kerala government implemented the orders of the Kerala High Court while HC rejected the environmental clearance to the Athirappilly project? No. Then on what basis has the HLWGR certified that “the project’s importance for meeting the peaking power requirements of the State cannot be disputed”?

The other recommendations of the HLWGR about hydropower development in Western Ghats are also problematic. It recommends environmental flows as 30% of lean season flow for hydropower dams, rather than asking for assessment of environment and social requirements of flow in the rivers. These studies cannot be done at a later stage as indicated by the HLWG. It makes no recommendations for flows in other seasons, including monsoon. The HLWG recommends that distance between 2 hydel projects should be minimum 3 kms, again without any basis. It should have asked for site specific studies rather than making such one-size-fits-all kind of recommendation, indicating lack of understanding of environmental issues. It should have at least mentioned ‘distance of free flowing river between two projects should be three kilometre”. Even in case of ROR projects, the submergence itself stretches for kilometres. Cascade hydel dam development which is devastating the Himalayas has not started in Western Ghats. Giving a recommendation like this is in fact inviting more cascades in Western Ghats, that too in the ESA.

The HLWGR has allowed what is it calls Green Growth in the Western Ghats area. But there is no credible process suggested as to who will decide this and how? How will such a process be achieved? Where is the road map to achieve it? The government itself calls all hydropower projects as green growth projects. It is shocking to read that HLWGR also describes all hydropower projects as clean and renewable, exposing their lack of understanding of the hydropower projects and their impacts. The HLWGR seems not bothered by the adverse impacts of such projects on the Western Ghats environment, this is clear in its recommendation agreeing to green growth projects without any credible process.

The HLWG has also not rejected Inter basin transfers from Western Ghats. In doing so, they have quoted justification that “Maharashtra that Rain Shadow Regions” need drinking water. Ironically, all the inter basin transfers happening in Maharashtra (Koyana and six Tata Dams) actually involve transfers FROM the rain shadow region TO water-rich Konkan region for power generation. But the HLWG Report says nothing about this Ulti Ganga. They should have actually recommended stoppage of these diversions if they had the interest of drought prone areas of Maharashtra in mind.

The HLWG Report is also entirely silent on the need to amend the EIA Notification 2006 to include Drinking Water and Industrial Water Supply Dams and Mini Hydel Projects below 25 MW and irrigation projects with command less than 10000 ha under the purview of this Notification. This has been one of the most serious challenges faced by Rivers in Western Ghats right now and the HLWG does not comment on this. It has not commented on dams like Kalu, Shai, Balganga, Lendhi, Gargai, Pinjal, Khargihill which will have a huge impact on Western Ghats ecology and communities. The extent of this damage is evident in the fact that in a recent Forest Clearance granted to Kalu Dam, the Forest Advisory Committee has asked the proponent to follow the recommendations of the Kasturirangan Committee Report. If only the report had made strong and proactive recommendations there was a chance of saving 1000 hectares of forests of Western Ghats

The HLWGR has not commented on fisheries at all.

While a more detailed critical look at the HLWGR will take time, this compilation puts before the readers exact passages from HLWG (see Section A below) and WGEEP (see Section B that comes after Section A) Reports for ready reference. It shows how much understanding of water issues the members of HLWG have or do not have.



A. High Level Working Group (HLWG) Report on Western Ghats (Kasturirangan Committee Report)

(HLWG Report Volume I, pp. XII-XXIII)

Out of the estimated 164,280 km2 of the Western-Ghats area, the natural landscape constitutes only 41 per cent. The area identified as ecologically sensitive is about 37 per cent i.e., about 90 % of the natural landscape.

1. Hydropower

Hydropower projects may be allowed in the ESA but subject to following conditions:

(a) Uninterrupted ecological flow at least 30 per cent level of the rivers flow in lean season till a comprehensive study establishes individual baselines.

(b) After a cumulative study which assesses the impact of each project on the flow pattern of the rivers and forest and biodiversity loss.

(c) Ensuring that the minimum distance between projects is maintained at 3 km and that not more than 50 per cent of the river basin is affected at any time.

The villages falling under ESA will be involved in decision making on the future projects. All projects will require prior-informed consent and no objection from the Gram Sabha of the village. The provision for prior informed consent under the Forest Rights Act will also be strictly enforced.

The strategy evolved for the continuation of the Western Ghats Development Programme, in the 12th Plan centres around, besides watershed based development, fragility of the habitat, and development needs of the people i.e. a Watershed + approach – an approach which emphasizes conservation, minimal ecological disturbance, involvement of locals along with sustainable model of economic development and livelihood generation with enhanced allocation.

2. Power/Energy, including hydropower and wind-

(HLWG Report, Volume I, pp. 106-108)

Hydroelectric projects, proposed and planned in the forested regions of the Western Ghats have often come in for opposition. It is clear that as much as the country needs hydroelectric power, which is renewable and clean, but it also needs to balance this requirement with the loss of biodiversity in forests and the need for ecological flow in rivers. Both are essential components and policy must determine that these elements are safeguarded. It is also clear that rivers in India play more than just basic ecological functions. These are lifelines for local livelihood, nutrition and water security. The desire to use the river for generating electricity cannot be at the cost of the value of the river. It is this balance that needs to be maintained. In fact, the potential of hydroelectric power has remained the sole driver for management of the river, particularly in its upper reaches. In the lower reaches, the use of the river for large-scale water diversion projects for irrigation and industrial uses becomes the criterion for development. But these single focus objectives must be enlarged so that the competing – and often the primary needs – can be taken into account at the time of planning and management.

It is also clear that rivers do not know boundaries. Therefore, the conditions for hydropower will be stipulated for the entire Western Ghats and not just for ESA. HLWG recommends that future hydroelectric projects in the ESA and the entire Western Ghats must only be considered on the basis of the following policies:

a. Hydropower development must be based on the acceptance of uninterrupted ecological flow at 30 per cent level of the rivers flow in lean seasons till a comprehensive study establishes individual baselines. The 30 per cent ecological flow is mandated in Western Ghats keeping in mind the shorter length of rivers in this region. The compliance with this condition will require rigorous and seasonal data collection in upper reaches of rivers to prepare a hydrological mapping of the basin. It is also clear that this hydrological assessment is critical given the changes in rainfall patterns because of climate change.

b. Hydropower projects must be considered only after a cumulative impact assessment on the flow pattern of the rivers and forest and biodiversity loss. Currently, individual projects are planned and executed without consideration of these impacts. The Environment Assessment Committees will only consider proposals for individual projects after cumulative impacts have been studied.

c. Current and future hydropower development in the Western Ghats must be based on clear rules that stipulate distance between projects and that do not allow for over-exploitation of the basin. The minimum distance between projects must be maintained at 3 km in most cases (shorter distance requirement because of the short length of the rivers in Western Ghats as compared to other regions) and not more than 50 per cent of the river basin should be affected at any time. This will require reworking the current projects to provide for optimized energy generation but it is necessary given the need to balance development with ecology.

d. Better and more balanced planning for hydropower will lead correct tariff of energy, taking into account the cost of raw material of water. Energy costs, world over, take into account the cost of raw material. It is imperative that the current subsidies and distortions in raw material supply for energy are minimized. It is in this context that water, as the raw material for generation of hydropower, must be factored in the project design. The ecological, social and cultural health of the river is a price that cannot be discounted at the time of planning for the feasibility of power.

e. There is a need to redesign and reevaluate small hydropower projects – below 25 mw as these often have limited impact on energy generation and can lead to huge impacts on ecology. The rationale for small projects must be considered within a policy framework, which provides for mini-grids and local energy distribution.

HLWG about Inter-basin transfers-

(HLWG Volume-I. pp- 100-103)

WGEEP recommendations for sector level planning and their implications

The WGEEP has recommended guidelines for sector-wise activities, which would be permitted in categorized ecologically sensitive area of the region. In this way, regions with the highest ecological sensitivity would have restricted developmental activities – from a total ban on mining to large hydroelectric projects or inter-basin transfer of water and even plantations. The listing is comprehensive and provides an important direction to what will constitute environmentally sound development in this ecologically rich region. The question is how such a development plan will be implemented. Furthermore, it is also important that environmentally sound development should be incentivized and not only practiced through fiat. It is also clear that this recommendation of the WGEEP has evoked the strongest criticism from many quarters. There is apprehension that this ‘blanket prescription’ could be detrimental to economy and livelihoods.

It is also a fact that permit-based regulations are often open for misinterpretation and misuse. A similar issue was raised with the High Level Group on its visit to Maharashtra, when officials explained that there was concern that the WGEEP, if implemented could lead to complete halt of all economic activity. “It would condemn people to live in stone-age”. According to them, the guidelines would not allow for any infrastructure development, from renewable energy to inter-basin transfer of water. This would be a problem, they explained, as many regions of the Western Ghats lie in the rain shadow area and need water to be diverted for irrigation and drinking. Clearly, their concern was the impact of the sweeping nature of the recommendations on the region’s economy. It is not possible to design an effective framework for sustainable development based on such an approach. It is clear that large -scale water diversion projects, which have impacts on the environment and forests, should not be allowed. However, this recommendation should not imply that all water diversion would be stopped even without any study or scrutiny about the individual project or cumulative impact of the projects.

HLWG recommendations for two hydel projects that were categorically rejected by the WGEEP Report

  • 163 MW Athirappilly HEP, Kerala:

HLWG is of the view that while the importance of the proposed Athirappilly hydropower project for meeting the peaking power requirements of the State cannot be disputed, there is still uncertainty about ecological flow available in the riverine stretch, which has a dam at a short distance upstream of the proposed project.

It recommends that given the increased variability due to unpredictable monsoon, the project must be revaluated in terms of the generation of energy and whether the plant load factor expected in the project makes it viable against the loss of local populations of some species. Based on this revaluation and collection of data on ecological flow, the Government of Kerala, could take forward the proposal, if it so desires with the Ministry of Environment and Forests.

The HLWG along with the officials of Kerala State Electricity Board and Kerala Forest Department visited the Athirappilly Hydropower Project, after hearing the presentations made by Kerala State Electricity Board (KSEB) and also a local NGO (River Research Centre, Trissur). The team visited the dam site, the settlement of Kadar tribes impacted by the dam, rapids and waterfalls and irrigation dam site. During presentation, the KSEB explained the upstream run of the river hydropower projects – the Sholayar project on the Sholayar river which is tributary of Chalakudy river, the tail water of which is discharged into downstream that flows into Poringalkuthu project which is on the main river itself, the tail water of which is discharged into downstream of Chalakudy river and is used for the proposed Athirappilly project which is about 40 km away from the backwaters of Cochin. All these projects are run of the river projects and there are no dry stretches of the rivers. If these streams/rivers are not dammed, the excess monsoon run off cannot be stored and enters into sea within 48 hours. The average annual inflow, based on 32 years data at Athirappilly, is 1169.Mm3. This is confirmed from the flow data of Chalakudy river at Arangals collected by Central Water Commission. The tail water from Athirappilly will be released into Chalakudy via its tributary at Kannankuzhithodu.

The fluctuations in the water flow in different months and the plant load factor were also explained. The issues relating to Kadar tribal families living close to the submergible portion of the dam were explained to HLWG and it was informed that a package has been worked out for their welfare without rehabilitation as the areas inhabited by them does not come under submergible zone. The NGOs, who met with HLWG, brought to its attention that project would have irreversible impact on the rich biodiversity value of the forest; particularly, along stretch of 7.89 km between dam site and the point where the tail race water joins Chalakudy river. They said that the habitat of the Kadar tribal population would be adversely hit and that people had not yet given their consent. In addition, they said that this project, being built in an area of biodiversity value, would have minimal benefits. The technical feasibility of the project was doubtful with meager amount of power obtained at high cost. In addition, plantation owners and farmer representatives located below the proposed project said it would have adverse impacts on downstream irrigation and drinking water.

The HLWG examined the status of forests, including the riparian forests and submergible slope forest, a small swampy area and the plantations. It is clear that as in all hydropower projects, there is a need to balance the need for energy, particularly peaking power, water supply and irrigation with the loss of biodiversity, forest habitat, displacement of tribal communities and the need for ecological flow in the river.

HLGW, after detailed deliberations on each of the critical issues, is of the view that while the project’s importance for meeting the peaking power requirements of the State cannot be disputed, there is still uncertainty about ecological flow available in the riverine stretch, which has a dam at a short distance upstream of the proposed project. Given the increased variability, in flow from catchments due to unpredictable monsoon rains, the project may be revaluated in terms of the generation of energy and if the plant load factor expected in the project makes it viable against the loss of local populations of some species. Based on this revaluation and collection of data on ecological flow, the Government of Kerala, could take forward the proposal if it so desires with the Ministry of Environment and Forests.

  • 200 MW Gundia HEP, Karnataka:

As the proposed Gundya hydropower project is located in the ESA, it must be proceeded upon with extreme caution. HLWG recommends that the Government of Karnataka should reassess the ecological flow in the downstream areas, based on a thorough evaluation of hydrological regimes in the area. The project should not be given the go-ahead, till such a review and reassessment is made. The Government’s review must also assess local damage to all forests, which will emanate from the construction work and if at all, this can be mitigated. The HWLG has not proposed a complete ban on the construction of hydropower projects in the ESA, but its recommended conditions that balance the needs of energy with environment, must be followed.

Background: The Karnataka Power Corporation Limited (KPCL) has proposed a hydroelectric project in the Gundya River basin in the Hassan and Dakshina Kannada district in two phases: Phase I of 1x 200 MW and Phase II of 1x 200 MW. The project is on Gundya river – a tributary of west flowing river of Netravathi; phase I involves pooling of waters by linking Yettinahole, Kerihole, Hongadhalla and Bettakumari and water from these streams will be intercepted by small weirs and will be drawn through a tunnel running from Yettinahole leading to Bettakumari reservoir. From the foreshore of this reservoir, 7.8 km long head trace tunnel takes water to a surge tank and from there to an underground powerhouse. The Phase II will have two tunnels – one tunnel will take water from Kadumanehalla and surrounding areas by 13 km long unlined tunnel and discharge into tunnel that takes water from Yettinahole weir, and another tunnel of 15 km long will take water from Lingath hole and Kumaradhara to Bettakumari reservoir. The submergible area will be 184.64 ha. An additional 560 ha will be needed for infrastructure. KPCL is not going ahead with the Hongadhalla dam because of the extensive submergible area of 523.80 ha. The project has got necessary clearances from different regulatory agencies; EAC of MoEF has asked KPCL to conduct also public hearing in Dakshna Kannada District, as project area falls in both the districts. The public hearing was conducted at Siribagiln village of Puttur taluka on 25.03.2009. Meanwhile the Malenadu Janapara Horata Samithi made a representation before the subcommittee of EAC during its visit to the site on 5.12.2009. The EAC has recommended clearance but the MoEF has not issued the environmental clearance.

The land required for the project includes forest area of 113 ha, revenue land of 263.63 ha, which also includes forests (though mostly degraded); and 71.5 ha of private land making it a total of 448.13 ha. The site has unique forest types with high biodiversity values (endemic, rare, threatened and new species) and also the cardamom and coffee plantations with scattered forest patches, which will be impacted adversely by land use changes and changes in hydrological regimes in the river basin due to project.

The major impacts of the project would be: (i) submergence of patches of riparian forest, (ii) land degradation/fragmentation of forest patches for tunneling and road construction; (iii) the drying up of down streams of three Yellinahole (with 60.50 km2 catchment area), Kerihole (27.00 km2 catchment area), Hongadahalla (8.50 km2 catchment area) and Bettakumari (35.00 km2 catchment area) before they join Gundya river, although each of them has small catchments, and a stretch of 34 km of Gundya river; and (iv) the apprehension of shortage of water at Subramanya Swami temple.

HWLG notes that the Gundya hydel project is run of the river project, which must ensure ecological flow in the affected stretch of the river. Furthermore, while the area of the submergible portion of forest is small, the construction of the project and tunneling in the region will have adverse impacts on both government forests and green areas on private land. As the Gundya hydropower projects is located in the ESA, HLWG recommends that it must be proceeded upon with extreme caution. It would recommend that the Government of Karnataka should reassess the ecological flow in the downstream areas, based on a thorough evaluation of hydrological regimes in the area. The project should not be given the go-ahead, till such a review and reassessment is made. The Government’s review must also assess damage to all forests, which will emanate from the construction work and if at all, this can be mitigated. The HWLG has not proposed a complete ban on the construction of hydropower in the ESA, but its recommended conditions that balance the needs of energy with environment must be followed.


Athirappilly and Gundia Hydel projects

WGEEP Categorically rejects both the projects for their impact on communities and ecosystems.

Sectoral Recommendations relating to Water

Recommendations for ESZ I, II, III-

Decentralized water resources management plans at Local Self Government level Protect high altitude valley swamps and water bodies. Catchment area treatment plans of hydroelectric and major irrigation projects should be taken up to improve their life span. Improve river flows and water quality by scientific riparian management programmes involving community participation Water conservation measures should be adopted through suitable technology up gradation and public awareness programmes inter-basin diversions of rivers in the Western Ghats should not be allowed

Hydropower projects

For ESZ I-

  • Allow run of the river schemes with maximum height of 3 m permissible which would serve local energy needs of tribal/ local communities / plantation colonies subject to consent of gram sabha and all clearances from WGEA, SEA and DECs.
  • No forest clearance or stream diversion for new projects
  • Run of the river schemes not allowed in first order or second order streams
  • Promote small scale, micro and pico hydropower systems, that are people owned & managed and are off grid
  • New small hydropower projects (10 MW and below) are permissible


  • Small bandharas permissible for local and tribal community use / local self- government use
  • No new dams above 15 m or new thermal plants permissible
  • New hydro projects between 10- 25 MW (up to 10 m ht) permissible
  • All project categories subject to very strict clearance and compliance conditions through SEA and DECs of WGEA
  • Have run off the river hydropower projects but after cumulative impact study of the river basin is done


  • Large Power plants are allowed subject to strict environmental regulations including 1. Cumulative impact assessment studies 2. Carrying capacity studies 3. Minimum forest clearance (norms to be set by WGEA) 4. Based on assessment of flows required for downstream needs including the ecological needs of the river.
  • For already existing dams reservoir operations to be rescheduled for allowing more water downstream

Common recommendations for all the three zones-

  • No diversion of streams/ rivers allowed for any power projects and if already existing, to be stopped immediately.
  • Catchment area treatment in a phased manner following watershed principles;
  • Continuous non-compliance of clearance conditions for three years would entail decommissioning of existing projects
  • Dams and thermal projects that have crossed their viable life span (for dams the threshold is 30–50 years) to be decommissioned in phased manner
  • All project categories to be jointly operated by LSGs and Power Boards with strict monitoring for compliance under DECs


Recommendations for ESZ I, II, III-

  • Strictly control use of dynamite and other explosives to kill fish; provide fish ladders at all reservoirs Introduce incentive payments as ‚conservation service charges‛ for maintenance of indigenous fish species in tanks under control of Biodiversity Management Committees or Fishermen’s co-operatives; monitor and control trade in aquarium fishes with the help of Biodiversity Management Committees

Water use-

(WGEEP Report Volume II, pp. 32-37)

Water resources management in the Western Ghats region is inextricably linked to improving the flows in the rivers and the health of the catchments. Western Ghats is the origin of many of the important Peninsular Rivers like Cauvery, Krishna and Godavari that drain the Deccan Plateau and flow eastwards. The hundreds of shorter perennial monsoon fed west flowing rivers like Sharavati, Netravathi, Periyar, and the Bharathapuzha travel through steeper and more undulating topography before emptying into the Arabian Sea. A rough estimate reveals that 245 million people in the five Western Ghats states directly depend on these rivers for their diverse water needs. Geographically, the Western Ghats is the catchment for river systems that drain almost 40 % of the land area in India. The basin area of west flowing shorter rivers is mostly located on the steep western slopes. Except for a few coastal streams 1/3 rd of the basin area of most of the river basins is located within the Western Ghats. This too makes them fragile and calls for their proper care and management. Once these streams leave the Western Ghats proper, they are drained and enriched by the once fertile steep river valleys, midlands and flood plains. The coastal and backwater fisheries is sustained by the rich nutrients and sediments brought down by the flowing rivers. The musings by fisher folk in coastal Kerala: ‘The Sea begins in the mountains and ‘fertility of the coast and the plains depends on the wealth from the rivers’ holds significance in this context. Open dug wells and springs are the other important water resources being extensively used for irrigation and drinking water purposes in the Western Ghats region. In several places, water–‐ harvesting structures dependent on rainwater are also used. In the Sigur plateau, numerous drinking water schemes dependent on the Moyar River are being operated for the tribal and dalit populations. Bore wells have made their entry in the recent past due to intensive irrigation patterns and lowering of water tables. As for Kerala, the groundwater potential is low when compared to other states and shallow dug wells are the most common source of freshwater. However, over the years the groundwater table is lowering at an alarming rate indicative of poor recharging capacity. On the other hand, water needs for drinking water, energy, irrigation and industrial purposes are growing in the Western Ghats States. More and more water is being diverted even from irrigation dams to meet the thirst of the expanding urban spaces and for industries. We have examples of Siruvani, Kabini, Peechi and Malampuzha reservoirs across the Western Ghats where irrigation water is being diverted for drinking and for the industrial needs of cities in the midlands like Coimbatore, Bangalore and Mysore, Thrissur and Palakkad respectively. New dams are being planned and some of them are in different phases of construction in the Maharashtra Western Ghats to meet the expanding needs of Mumbai and its suburbs. Pinjal, Shai, Gargai, Kalu and Vaitarani dams are recent cases. Water abstraction through check dams across hill streams is being practiced for decades by tea and coffee plantations in upstream catchments of rivers to meet their drinking and irrigation needs. This has resulted in cutting off the stream flows at their origin itself. Indiscriminate and unplanned tourism is another reason for increasing water abstraction and diversion. The tourism industry in Ooty depends on the reservoirs constructed across the tributaries of the Cauvery in the high mountains since the times of the British. Studies reveal that east–‐ flowing Rivers like Krishna, Cauvery are struggling to reach the seas due to over abstraction of both surface and groundwater. Basins are closing and its impact is felt even on delta fishing, farming livelihoods and ecology. During the 2001-2004 drought years, the discharge from the Krishna to the ocean was almost nil! As for the west-flowing rivers, saline ingress is advancing even into the midlands due to reduced downstream flows. Crop losses and saline water intrusion into drinking water has been reported in Kerala during severe summer owing to salinity intrusion. In Goa, mining has affected groundwater and surface flows and drainage patterns of rivers impacting downstream needs and water quality. Tailings from mines are polluting streams and rivers. The Kudremukh mining issue is a classic case of mining- related pollution. This mountain range has a long history of human interventions and each of these have directly or indirectly impacted upon the water resources availability and recharge in the region. Some of the important interventions and issues that have had lasting impacts on water resources and its management in the Western Ghats are briefly discussed below.

Issues of Concern

Forest destruction in the river catchments

Western Ghats has a long history of deforestation. Deforestation of upper catchments of rivers for timber, river valley projects and plantations has drastically reduced the capacity of the hill streams that feed into the rivers to hold and recharge water. Drying up of streams immediately after the monsoons and desiccation related to deforestation is clearly evident. This in turn has contributed to reduced summer flows.

River management in the Western Ghats

Most of the rivers in the Western Ghats are either dammed or diverted, some of them at several sites for power generation in the upper reaches and irrigation in the lower reaches. For instance, the east–‐‑flowing tributaries of Cauvery (Bhavani, Moyar, Kabani) and Krishna (Bhima, Tunga, Bhadra) are already dammed. The west–‐‑flowing shorter rivers (Sharavathi, Periyar) have been dammed at several places. We also have complete diversion of river flows at Mullaperiyar and Parambikulam dams involving Kerala and Tamil Nadu. West-flowing rivers have been virtually made into east–‐‑flowing Rivers by violating all natural laws. Dams are without dispute the most direct modifiers of river flows. They can heavily modify the magnitude (amount) of water flowing downstream, change the timing, frequency and duration of high and low flows and alter the natural rates at which rivers rise and fall during runoff events. Severe daily flow fluctuation between peak and off peak times below dams is commonplace in west–‐‑flowing dammed rivers. This has impacted drinking water schemes, major and minor irrigation projects operating in downstream areas apart from cutting off flood plains and impacting aquatic ecology and riparian systems. However very few studies are available that correlate the reservoir operations with the different types of downstream impacts and put measures in place for mitigation. In the case of inter-basin water, no water flows or even

The Mullaperiyar dam is a classic case where the main tributary of Periyar has been completed diverted to the Vaigai basin in the east. Idukki dam does not even have a spillway for allowing monsoon spills into the river. In Maharashtra, the tail race discharges of Koyna Powerhouse I, II and III are released into the west–‐‑flowing Vashishthi River and lead to heavy floods in Chiplun. Continuous stretches of rivers have dried up irreparably below diversions affecting river ecology, surface flows and even ground water seepage. Many of the reservoirs especially in the steep valleys are silting up prematurely due to the massive encroachment and deforestation of catchments consequent to dam construction. Idukki dam is a classic case wherein the entire catchment was encroached along with dam construction. The operations of hydroelectric stations (reservoir operations) are in tune with the power needs rather than the downstream water needs. Hence daily flow fluctuations created by peak and off peak operations of reservoirs in dammed rivers have led to upstream- downstream conflicts in many river basins. Similarly diversion of flows into another river basin after power generation is creating problems of daily flood in the recipient basin and drought in diverted basins. These are turning into management issues which need to be addressed at a basin level. However, there is a lack of systematic river basin level data on ecological changes due to hydrological alterations created by dams.

Incorrect land use patterns

Mining for mineral ores, granite and lateritic mining has affected water availability and recharge especially in the lower altitude regions and midlands. In Goa alone, the government itself has acknowledged that over half of the 300 odd mining leases are located close to water bodies. Data tabled in the Goa Assembly revealed that several of the 182 mining leases exist within one kilometer of a major irrigation project, the Selaulim dam, which provides drinking water to six lakh people in south Goa, virtually half the population of Goa (Ref: Deccan Herald Article).

In South Karnataka and North Kerala, surangams, a traditional irrigation system in lateritic hills is losing out to lateritic mining. Many of the rivers in this region originate from these lateritic hills and many of the Western Ghats Rivers like Chandragiri, Valapattanam, and Netravathi benefit from the water recharged by lateritic hills in their flow downstream.

Agricultural practices including cropping patterns have a role to play in water resource management in the Western Ghats. Planting steep slopes with soil–‐‑eroding monocu;ture crops like rubber and banana, and heavy tillage, has led to increased surface runoff along with loss of precious top soil. This has contributed to low seepage and infiltration into deeper soil depths. The deforestation for tea, coffee and cardamom plantations located at higher altitudes has contributed to drying up of hill streams.

 Reclamation of high altitude valley swamps is contributing to water scarcity in the upper catchments. Many of the rivers originate from these swamps and are source of perennial flow. In the Nilgiris, most of the fertile water rich swamps have been converted for intensive pesticide-based farming, greenhouse farms, housing, etc.

Sand mining

Most of the rivers in Western Ghats are facing the consequences of indiscriminate sand mining. The lowering of water tables and deterioration of water quality are the immediate impacts. River beds in some stretches are lower than the sea level accelerating saline ingress. Drinking water scarcity is on the rise in river bank panchayats in spite of being close to the river. Plan funds are spent for providing drinking water even to panchayats on river banks. Sand mining has also impacted breeding and feeding grounds of fish and other aquatic species

Measures for Mitigation/Improvement

Time for river basin-­level planning and decentralised management of water resources in the Western Ghats As cited above, the impacts of incorrect land use and interventions are already evident. Reduced summer flows, flow fluctuations, lowering of water tables and degrading water quality are all direct impacts of the presently followed project–‐‑oriented, demand-supply based and ad hoc approach to water resource planning and management. The time is ripe for a paradigm shift in approach to river basin–‐‑level management of water resources where water is considered an integral part of the ecosystem. Some important measures that can be adopted in this regard are briefly detailed.

1. Local self–‑ government level decentralized water management plans to be developed at least for the next 20 years: Water resource management plans with suitable watershed measures, afforestation, eco–‐‑restoration of catchments, rainwater recharging and harvesting, storm water drainage, water auditing, recycling and reuse etc. should be built into the plans. These water management plans should integrate into basin level management plans. The objective is to reduce the dependence on rivers and external sources and to improve recharge.

2. Reschedule reservoir operations in dammed rivers and regulate flows in rivers to improve downstream flows and also to act as a conflict resolution strategy. These should be implemented with an effective public monitoring system in place.

3. Revive traditional water harvesting systems like recharge wells, surangams, etc.

4. Protect high altitude valley swamps that are the origins of rivers from further reclamation and real estate or agricultural development and declare them as ‘hotspots for community conservation’

5. Participatory sand auditing and strict regulations to be put in place.

6. Declare “sand holidays’ based on assessments and sand audits for mined river stretches. Items 5 and 6 would work to improve the water retention capacity in the river.

7. Rehabilitation of mined areas to be taken up by the companies / agencies with special focus on reviving the water resources like rivers, wells, tanks, etc. that have been destroyed by the mines.

8. Planters, local self–‐‑governments and Forest Departments in high altitude areas should come together for eco–‑restoration of the forest fragments between the tea and coffee estates and revive hill streams.

9. Take up catchment area treatment plans of hydro and major irrigation projects to improve their life span.

10. Riparian management can be taken up with community participation and involvement to improve river flows and water quality.

11. Water conservation measures should be adopted through suitable technology upgradation and public awareness programs.

12. Reconnect children and youth to rivers and water resources through basin level education programs.

Actionable points for the WGEA-

The (proposed) Western Ghats Ecology Authority (WGEA) can take a strong recommendatory and advisory role in this regard. Some of the important recommendations for WGEA are:

1. Declare origins of rivers as Ecologically Sensitive Localities (ESLs) (the catchment area)

2. Many projects in the Western Ghats are on–‐‑going or completed with violations in environmental clearance and forest clearance or even no clearances at all, as in the case of the Kalu and Shai dams in Maharashtra. The WGEA should act as an additional layer for screening projects approved by the Expert Appraisal Committees (EACs), subject them to additional scrutiny in terms of the geographical context, ecological sensitivity, status of river basin and need for environmental flows taking into consideration all season flows instead of ad hoc allocations.

3. Till the WGEA comes into operation, issue a moratorium on all on–‐‑going projects like dams and mines that can impact upon water resources in a substantial way. The WGEA should subject the projects to scrutiny for mandatory clearances and compliances, and augment the level of public consultation before deciding on whether to allow them to progress or not.

4. No more inter–‐‑basin diversions of rivers shall be allowed in the Western Ghats.

5. Take up sample river basins in each state and recommend to the State Governments to carry out:

  • Environment flow assessments involving social movements for river protection, research institutions, NGOs along with communities to put in place indicators for environmental flow assessment
  • Assessment of downstream impacts of dams on river ecology, flood plains, fishing habitats, livelihoods, etc.
  • Salinity intrusion mapping so as to suggest improved flows in future
  • Improve reservoir operations management in dammed rivers to improve meeting of water needs of downstream populations. Put proper monitoring of reservoir operations in place involving downstream local self–‐‑governments and departments.
  • Update and upgrade hydrological databases in rivers and consolidate the ecological database and information at river basin level
  • Based on the consolidation of databases, declare high conservation value stretches of rivers as ESAs and keep them free them from further development.

6. Recommend to State Governments to take up decentralized bottom􀈮up river basin planning with restoration built into the plans.

7. River Basin Planning should be supported by suitable legal institutions that are capable of integrating different departments which are presently dealing with or impacting on the rivers in a compartmentalized manner. Put in place river basin organizations adapted to state administrative context.

8. All new projects in the Western Ghats (dams, mines, tourism, housing, etc. that impact upon water resources) should be subject to cumulative impact assessment and should not exceed the carrying capacity.

9. Stronger and stricter laws for regulation of sand mining to be developed

10. Recommend the decommissioning of dams that have outlived their utility, are underperforming, and have silted up beyond acceptable standards, etc.


 (WGEEP, Volume II, pp. 48-49)

Depletion of the fishery resources is a serious issue in the Western Ghats region. Compared to marine fish resources / biodiversity, the freshwater fish diversity is on the decline due to various reasons. Traditionally the conservation and management of fishery resources were vested with local communities, but this has now been altered. Several innovative measures are required to revive this highly valued resource and to use it in a sustainable manner on account of its relevance in livelihood improvement and food security. There is a need to readdress these issues with the fisheries department and other impacting sectors to reorient conservation measures in a participatory mode. Furthermore, local fish consumption has been a traditional source of protein for local people from time immemorial.

Issues of Concern

  • Habitat loss, including loss of mangroves
  • Pollution due to pesticides, industrial effluents/other sources
  • Waste dumping in rivers
  • Improper river maintenance and management
  • Unscientific methods of collection (use of poisons, electro–‐‑fishing, dynamiting etc.)
  • Impoundments in rivers, check dams
  • Introduction of exotic fishes
  • Destruction/loss of breeding grounds
  • Fish diseases
  • Overexploitation
  • Unauthorised ornamental fish trade
  • Sand mining
  • Excessive tourism activities in freshwater lakes
  • Decline of indigenous species due to introduction of exotic and alien fishes species

Measures for Mitigation/Improvement-

  • Regular monitoring of fish wealth to assess the health/ diversity of the fish population.
  • Banning the use of plastics which settle at the bottom of water bodies and lakes and affect breeding of some species.
  • Management measures aimed at conserving freshwater fish biodiversity to be incorporated into the fishery policy.
  • The database on population size and geographical distribution of endangered and endemic species should be strengthened by undertaking extensive micro–‐‑geographical surveys. Information on area of distribution and micro–‐‑geographical characteristics of the habitats of these ecologically sensitive fishes will be inputs for establishment of aquatic reserves for the conservation of these species.
  • Information regarding migration, breeding behavior and spawning grounds of threatened fishes should be generated through extensive surveys and analysis. Such a database is essential for both ex situ and in situ conservation of the species.
  • Techniques should be developed for the captive breeding and brood stock development of fishes of potential economic importance.
  • Brood stock maintenance centers and hatcheries should be established exclusively for indigenous, endangered and critically endangered fishes for their in situ conservation and aqua ranching as a substitute for their natural recruitment.
  • Investigation on the invasive nature of exotic species in the natural habitats should be carried out. The functioning of the committee constituted under the Government of India to quarantine and control introduction of exotic species should be made more effective and foolproof.
  • Strict vigilance and monitoring, including enforcement of laws, to be ensured to reduce the loss of the natural breeding grounds of the fishes arising from reclamation of paddy and wetlands.
  • Strengthen awareness programs to ensure the sustainability and survival of fish resources.
  • Regulation on fishing, during breeding seasons in freshwater environs to restore natural/ wild stock
  • Establishment of fish sanctuaries
  • Sand mining and other activities which destroy the habitat of many endemic fishes to be restricted.
  • Live–‐‑fencing using native plant species instead of stone walls to be encouraged for protecting river banks.
  • River Management Funds to be utilised for activities related to river health programs and not for construction or other developmental activities.
  • Regulation of ornamental fish collection from the wild.

Compiled by Damodar Pujari, SANDRP (

2 thoughts on “How much does the Kasturirangan Committee understand about Water Issues in Western Ghats?

  1. Question is valid. congratulations for very good analysis of very important issue. Since water is not known.. how we can expect to have comment on ‘fish and fisheries’. Probelm with HLWG is that ‘fish in rivers and reservoirs’ can not be sensed remotely.


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