Guest article by Kaushik Mukherjee and Sourav Prokritibadi
‘Kotto jongol chhnirbek! Sohoje ee jongol chnirte lairbek’ [‘How many trees are they going to cut down? These forests can never be destroyed so easily’]- comment by a tribal lady, Marang Buru hills, Ajodhya, Purulia.
The hilly area of Ayodhya is located within the dry deciduous forest belonging to a sub-region of the north-eastern part of Chhotonagpur plateau, included within a distinctive agro-ecological zone of West Bengal—the undulating red and laterite zone. Some of the prominent and well known hills of this area are Mathaburu, Gorgaburu, Pakhipahar, Ayodhya. The distinctive geological-hydrological backdrop and its characteristic floral and faunal diversity support a local human population—who, as official documents testify, are dependent on the forest for their life and livelihood. Moreover, the topography, forest wealth and wildlife attract tourists, wildlife researchers and naturalists in considerable numbers. Apart from being a popular tourist destination, Ayodhya hill range is significantly important for the entire Santhal population of all over India. The area is located precariously close to excavation sites that have yielded a rich outcrop of microliths—pushing the prehistory of Bengal back to 42,000 years BP[i] and promoting the area to the status of one of the most sensitive archaeological locales in West Bengal[ii].
Ayodhya Pahar became important in terms of electricity generation for the first time in 2008[iii]. On 6th April 2008, Purulia Pumped Power Storage Project (PPSP, hereafter) was formally inaugurated on the Bamni River, downstream of Bareria village, in the slopes of the Ayodhya Hills near Baghmundi. All four units of the project had been commissioned earlier. The project inaugurated by the then chief minister of West Bengal, Buddhadeb Bhattacharya, was actually funded by JICA (Japan International Cooperation Agency) undertaken in collaboration with Taisei Company of Japan and involved an investment of around 2953 crores[iv]. The project had installed capacity of 900 MW with help of four reversible turbines of 225 MW each.
There is another river located at a linear distance of 2.5 to 3 km from the Bamni River called Thurga. The Thugra Pumped Power Storage Project (TPSP, hereafter) on it. The TPSP is, declaredly, the second project in a preconceived overall plan of four pumped storage schemes in the Ayodhya Hills[v]. However, no names or locations were mentioned in the Factsheet prepared by officers of the Forest Department of the Govt. of West Bengal, which came up for consideration for the Forest Clearance. Here, the four projects mentioned are Purulia Pumped Storage Project, Thurga Pumped Storage Project, Kathlajal Pumped Storage Project, and the Bandu Pumped Storage Project.[vi] However, there is some confusion as to which exactly are the third and fourth project. Another important source mention Bandu as the third project and Kulbera (or Kurbera) as the fourth pumped storage project in the Ayodhya Hills, with Kathlajal taking a backseat due to some difficulties in implementation in a reserved forest area.[vii]
Key Questions Some key questions that arise are:
- How feasible is it to build 4 power plants in a hilly area like Ayodhya? The Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA hereafter) of the TPSP provides the location of the Upper and Lower Dams (Reservoirs). One can clearly see that the distance between the upper dams of PPSP and TPSP is 2.71 km and distance between the two lower dams is as small as 2.33 km. It is clear that the two projects are situated very close to each other. The 900 MW Bandu Nala project requiring 387 ha of forest land was recommended 1st stage environmental clearance by the MoEF’s (Union Ministry of Environment, Forests and Climate Change) Expert Appraisal Commmittee (EAC) on River Valley Projects (RVP) in their meeting on January 28, 2019[viii]. The exact proposed locations of the project sites of the Kathlajal project are unknown. However, the Kathlajal Nala is situated within 6 km geodesic distance of the Kistobazar Nala and towards its east and south, as the Thurga is to its west and north. In terms of the location of the Bandu Nala and from what one has come to learn of the upper dam and lower dam coordinates, it appears to be situated on the northern side of the Ayodhya[ix] Of the Kulbera project, little seems to be known of its location except it is to be undertaken somewhere in the Ayodhya Hills area.[x])
- What are the probable changes that might come to the lives of people in about 75 villages if the projects are taken up?
- How will these projects impact the rich traditional local culture of this area?
- What are the impacts of these projects on the neighboring regions?
- What are the possible impacts of the projects on the unique ecology and biodiversity of the Ayodhya Hills? How are the endemic flora and fauna going to be affected by this project?
- Has any carrying capacity and cumulative impact assessment study done?
Purulia Pump Storage Project The construction work on PPSP on the Bamni River started in the year 2002 and ended in 2008. Unlike other hydroelectric power projects, these types of power plants don’t need an abundant flow of water. Firstly, a dam is constructed on a river with one reservoir at a higher elevation and a second reservoir at a lower elevation within a distance of about some hundred meters or a few kilometers. The usual mechanism of power generation continues as the water held in the higher reservoir, is released through a turbine to the lower reservoir.
The turbines of the Pumped Storage Projects are reversible. However, the water has to be pumped back to the higher reservoir, thereby, using electricity. Typically, the electricity used in this exercise is about 20% more than that of the amount that had been generated primarily at the time of releasing the water from the upper reservoir. In fact design cycle efficiency of PPSP[xi] is even lower at 75.5%. Thus Pump Storage Project is a net consumer of power. But it is supposed to provide advantage of generating during peaking hours and using excess electricity during off peak hours to pump the water back. The required electricity for this is taken from the grid.
Such projects are for ensuring an immediate supply of power to well electrified urban areas and industries during peak hours and not any power to the local populations. There are many questions that arises about the need for such projects when existing peaking power capacities are not fully utilised, existing pump storage projects are not operating optimally. And nothing is being done to manage the peak loads and nor is there any additional cost to the power during peaking hours. There are not answers to such questions.
What are the other possible problems that Ayodhya hills could face following completion of TPSP?
Impacts of construction of the two reservoirs (one at the higher elevation and the other at the lower) are significantly different from that of an ordinary hydro electric power plant, as the former requires:
- Acquisition and diversion of agricultural and forest lands for two dams and not one.
- Investment for two dams is needed.
- Large amount of materials needed for the construction works for two dams, connecting tunnel/ pipes, power house, transmission lines, roads, colonies, mining of materials, dumping of debris and impacts of all this.
- Construction of multiple dams in an already water scarce area will lead to even more heightened problems of water crisis.
- Small seasonal rivers stand a continuous risk of running out of water.
- Deforestation and construction works on small hill ranges like the Ayodhya hills, can lead to increased risks of soil erosion and landslides. These risks become more prominent due to continuous mining and quarrying activities in the hills.
All of the aforementioned problems have already started to become prominent in the Ayodhya hills. Extensive ‘development activities’ in a small geographical area (covering only a few kilometers) pose the entire local ecology with grave challenges. The Thugra Project will itself engulf 292 ha of land, out of which 234 ha is forest land. These four PPSP projects are likely to claim about 2000 ha of land including about 1000 ha forestland.
Impact on Biodiversity The website of the Purulia Zilia Forest Department (PZFD) states: “Bio-Diversity: Biogeographically it represents zone 0 6 B (Deccan Peninsula Chhotonagpur), Mammal – 39 species (5 in Schedule – I) – (Pangolin, wolf, leopard cub, leopard, elephant). Amphibian – 9 species, Fish – 27 species, Mollusk – 9 species. Most interesting is Madras Tree Shrew which is found on the top hills of this ecosystem and nowhere else in West Bengal. Ayodhya hill ecosystem hosts few number mega-mammals like elephant. Though major elephant habitat is engulfed by PPSP,at present, the number of such resident elephant is considered to be 8-10. Apart from that the seasonally migrated herds of elephant from nearby Jharkhand forest took shelter in this area for days together in different seasons of the year.” The Forest Advisory Committee’s (FAC) report also support this contention.
Moreover, noted expert V Menon has said: ‘The establishment of a hydro-electric power project in the Ayodhya Hills near Baghmundi has affected the elephant population in Ayodhya Hills and the usage of this corridor’.[xii]
The PZFD website also states – “Ecological Importance: The total area drains into two major river systems, namely Subarnarekha and Kangsabati. Ayodhya hill plays an important role in harvesting of monsoon rain. Moreover, few lakhs of people residing in and around forest directly or indirectly depends on this forest for fodder, fuel wood, small timber and other tangible or intangible benefits. Small dams like Murguma, Pardi, Burda, Gopalpur, Tilaitar helps in irrigation of agricultural field.”
Let’s see what was the biodiversity scenario of these areas a few decades ago. For instance, the list of mammals as obtained from the Government Gazzette are: “Leopard, Jungle Cat, Leopard Cat, Hyena, Wolf, Jackal, Fox, Black/Sloth Bear, The common otter, Indian Civet, The Indian grey mongoose, Wild Pig, Sambar, The barking deer (muntjac), The four horned antelope, Common Hare, Rhesus Macaque, Langur, The short-tailed Indian pangolin, The striped squirrel, Porcupine, House mouse, House rat, House shrew, Bandicoot rat, Yellow bat, Flying-fox”.
This unique biodiversity has already faced much destruction and losses. Wildlife has either been slaughtered or driven away to speed up the construction process of PPSP. As one local club member says, “Bombs were hurled to kill and get rid of the animals for the construction of PPSP. There even have been such incidents where meat attached to a bomb was used as a bait to kill the leopard cats.” It should be noted, that the Government reports suggest that the area gives shelter to at least five kinds of mammals who belong to schedule one category (critically endangered). Providing protection to those animals is then the constitutional responsibility of the Government. Among the other mammals, the condition of the elephants is crucial to take note. A herd of twelve to fourteen elephants reside in this place. Although the ecology has been degraded and endangered, these troops of elephants will have nowhere to go if they lose this tiny area even.
Deforestation and the facade of compensatory afforestation “Panchayat has been planting thousands of Eucalyptus trees in the Ayodhya hills. But eucalyptus has been proved to be damaging to entire local natural ecology, as it exhausts ground water and soil nutrition. Even grasses do not grow under these trees”, states a teacher of Teliabhasha village. Actually, the concerned forest needs more protective, empathetic care rather than further damage. Moreover, a project that, among other things, necessitates abundant stone quarrying in an area of major archaeological concern is, to say the least, a hugely worrisome proposition.
PPSP (159.59 ha forest land was diverted for this project, Stage II FC on Oct 31, 2001) has resulted in cutting down a forest of about three and a half lac of trees (where the upper dam of Ayodhya is now situated). In spite of the promise of compensatory afforestation, for ‘offsetting biodiversity’, not a single tree (except Eucalyptus) has been planted so far in Ayodhya or Bundwan. Although the government report on tree felling claims that only six thousand trees will be cut down, Thurga Project is estimated to shatter around four lac trees. “They (the govt. officials) only value artificial artifacts. How can they appreciate anything that is natural?”, sighs Janashyam Murmu. Supposedly, the compensatory afforestation for TPSP is going to take place in three places of Purulia and in a single block of Jalpaiguri in North Bengal. However, nothing has been specified about the name of the blocks or the kind of land-use (cultivable or forest or residential).
Sacred Grove and Supreme authority for the tribals Near the village panchayat of Ayodhya, lie Sutantandi and Sitakunda, which are sacred grove and culturally significant to the local Santhal people. Sitakunda is the place where in annual festival, lacs of tribal people meet and celebrate. Sutantandi is resorted to resolve the matters of the commons. “Sutantandi is our Supreme Court; we abide by all the decisions taken there. Previously the place was covered by trees that hardly let any sunlight in. However, Forest Department has cut down many age old trees. We demanded protection and conservation of Sutantandi for it to lay untouched’, states Jhulan Murmu. There are many sacred places of MarangBuru in the forest areas. Besides there is the sacred MarangBuru hill, most of which is about to be submerged under water if the dam is constructed.
What about the local people whose livelihood is inextricably often depends on the forest? PPSP offered jobs to only few people and that too temporary in nature. Those jobs were over as soon as the construction completed. The people of about seventy villages therefore face an intense problem in terms of livelihood. On one hand, they face scarcity of water, while trying to meet the basic need for cultivation in the fields, as all the river water are drawn to the power projects. On the other hand, large tracts of cultivable lands and forest areas are immersed in the dam reservoir water. There are about two hundred non-local people permanently having jobs from PPSP. This implies that four such projects would employ eight hundred people. But this would also imply the loss of livelihood for people in more than seventy villages. These people will be forced to become ‘development refugees’ and forced to move to urban areas as ‘footloose’[xiii] or migratory labour, engaged in precarious activities.
“I have some cattle. Other than that, rice is cultivated just beside the Thurga River in the summers. I did not leave the place, but my sons had to. This (TPSP) will be a hard blow to any hopes left for the place and the people here. There would be no option other than to go to Bombay or Chennai and work as casual labor”, remarked an elderly man standing on the Upper-Dam Co-ordinates of the Thurga River basin.
We can pick up just one example showing how the neighboring areas would be affected due to these projects. For example, both rivers on which PPSP and the proposed TPSP are located flow into the same river, the Sobha River, which in turn flows into the Subarnarekha River. So, once both are operational, it is not that difficult to understand that these projects will surely affect the flow and volume of water in Sobha River and subsequently in Subarnarekha River (132.9 kms away from Ayodhya hill) as well. Kartik Tudu said, ‘Previously, digging up to seven to eight feet near the river would fetch us water whereas now it is not found even below ten feet after PPSP was launched.’
Fraudulent EIA of Thurga PSP Now, the TPSP has unjustifiably received Environmental Clearance in July 2018. A careful look at the EIA and the Social Impact Assessment (SIA) reveal that the basic approach to evaluating impact is insincere, incomplete, misdirected and faulty. Therefore, the proper picture of real impact on the environment and the people dependent thereon has not been portrayed.
It is no surprise that the EIA simply avoids taking into consideration the impact of the PPSP situated on the Kistobazar Nala, located very close to the Thurga Project, with the distance between the two lower dams being about 2.33 km and the distance between the two upper dams being about 2.71 km. As the map of the area clearly shows, both the projects are situated in the same area of forested land and natural terrain and their impacts will inevitably combine to affect the area in question. Therefore, taking into consideration the impact of the already operational project was the obviously required both scientifically and statutorily. But, this was not done.
It is written by a group of professors from Vidyasagar University in the EIA report of TPSP, about the PPSP—‘It cannot be presaged how much these Pumped storage Projects will improve the level of peak power scenario of West Bengal, but from the above study it is obvious that PPSP has caused a great damage to the environment and economy of the study area. Cost benefit analysis also shows that this type of project in this drought prone region is not economically viable if we consider the intangible costs that the society and environment have already paid. Therefore, immediate mitigation measures are required to restore environmental stability and ensure economic prosperity of this region’.[xiv]
For whom is this dam? “What is this dam for? What about our sustenance? We get our food from the hills. Forests provide us with woods and food. If Baghmundi is submerged, what are we supposed to eat? We will die. Think about this, and also inform the government”, exclaimed an elderly woman of Shaldi village, while watching pieridae butterflies, sitting in the bank of the Thurga.
When the people of the Ayodhya hills were made to sign in the No Objection Certificate, they were not given any proper information about the project. A villager informed, “They were distributing snacks in the Panchayat office. When we went to collect the food, they made us sign first”. Another said, “I was made to sign when I went to collect the ‘Swastha- Sathi’ (health scheme by govt. of W.B.) card”. “A ‘Memsahib’ came for our meeting. When we went to see her, we were asked to sign”. “They said that there will be a project. We demanded permanent employment, if the project commences. DM asked his people to write down all our demands. We signed only after wee saw our demands on paper”. This shows how fraudulent the process was.
All the villagers from Ranga, Tarpania, Teliabhasha, hatinada, barelahor, Chhatni and kalijhorna, who shared their experiences with us, later understood the actual extent of problems and called for village meetings and put forward their grievances as resolution, as published in a leaflet from the villagers (Gramsabha is not yet functional here for obtaining the consent under Forest Rights Act, 2006[xv]):
‘Few years earlier, when the project of Purulia Pumped Storage (hydro-electric power generation unit) was started then not only were we promised with jobs but also the option of being able to avail the generated electricity free of cost. However, the electricity generated by the project found its way to Arambag and Ranchi, leaving the local place (Ayodhya hill) the way it was. All that we got from the project were some contractual jobs, that too temporary in nature. Now we have to live with the fear of the disturbed and displaced elephants invading our homes and crop-fields. It was the most natural reaction of the flock after facing frequent destruction of their habitats and dearth of food. We also clearly remember the death of an elephant, electrocuted by the high tension wires, near the Kashidi dam two or three years ago. The human interventions not only affect the elephants but also other wild animals which inhabit these places. We have also noticed a significant decrease in the population of the rabbits, pangolin, bears and deer which previously used to exist in abundant numbers. Some of them like the jackals, varied kinds of indigenous leopards and snakes also tend to attack our homes, in response to their own crises. This antagonism, we fear, will increase if the Thurga Project is undertaken’.
Additionally, the Bamni River has been destroyed due to the Purulia Project. We already face an immense problem of drawing water to our fields for cultivation; the Thurga Project will only contribute to the aggravation of this problem.
Both the adivasi and non-adivasi people inhabiting this place share an inseparable and inexplicable relationship with the forest. Ranging from gathering dry leaves for fuel, making structure of our homes and cultivation equipment like tiller from the wood, the ghong leaves that protect us from heavy showers, to the chosen trees that organically witness our marriages, the forest offers us our living. We also get to sell some of the Kendu leaves that we gather from the forest. The forest grass is the only place for our cattles to graze. They have also been deprived us of our grazing lands due to such projects. Where will we go if they cut off our sacred grove of MarangBuru?
The Purulia Project stripped Ayodhya off about three and half lac trees. The promise, however, of planting trees back (‘compensatory afforestation’) in Bundwan (another block of Purulia) remains unfulfilled. On the other hand, we were alleged of theft when our villagers went to see the modern machines used during the Purulia project. The loss of medicinal plants in this process has profound impacts and cannot ever be supplemented. Wide roads have been constructed after clearing off these forests, but there is hardly any concern regarding the possibility of the functional relationship between the dearth of forest cover in the hilly areas and the irregular and decreased rainfall, stream flow and groundwater levels. We fear the environmental conditions will deteriorate if such activities continue. This deterioration also, by default, puts our life at stake.
One of our sacred places of Sutantandi lies within the Ayodhya village panchayat which deserves to stay without any intrusion. For its conservation and to protect it from appropriation, we demanded a declaration of the area to be under reservation. While Thurga Project demands lands from the village panchayat, the Government has not responded to our demand of the reservation of Sutantandi.
Violation of FRA As required under 3rd and 5th clauses of Forest Rights Act (FRA, 2006), we did not agree to any project which would harm our forests, which belong to everyone in our GramSabha and which we have now sustained over generations. Any project involving deforestation and felling of trees in these forests directly violates the FRA (2006) as it undermines our rights to these forests as well as our common cultural heritage. On the basis of the 5th clause of the FRA, we hereby declare the deforestation project in Ayodhya hill as illegal. We demand that any such projects undertaken by the authority be stopped immediately. Besides, we would also like to point out, that the members of our village were not adequately informed by the government on the terms and clauses of FRA. In fact, FRA has not been implemented in our area at all. This also violates the 2009 guidelines of the Ministry of Environment and Forests. These central government guidelines state, as long as the communities living in the forest areas object to diverting the forest lands for any other uses or projects, such projects can never be undertaken. For any such project, written mandate of the concerned GramSabha (consisting of the villagers living in these areas), is needed. Since we did not agree to this deforestation of Ayodhya hill and our GramSabha was kept in dark about any such project, any implementation of this project is illegal. We did not even get a chance of a public hearing and proper information. Considering all these issues we do not want Thurga project in our locality.’[xvi]
“There is no use of contemplating the matter with coherent set of arguments and counter-arguments. The electricity or any important service hardly matters to them; it’s only the business of selling some construction materials that they are interested in! It ends up inflicting immeasurable harm to the rivers.” – Professor of Indian Statistical Institute.
Conclusion We conclude by raising some questions that stay back:
- Although the project claims to electrify the local villages, the proportion of villagers enjoying this facility is low. In any case, now that India is power surplus, these projects are certainly not needed to provide electricity to these villages?
- Whatever power supply is available in the local villages, it is very irregular and non-reliable. However, in the cities, electricity is often wasted away in luxuries like shopping malls, air conditioners and many other non-necessities. If the electricity generated in our lands is used to light up rich people’s mansions, why can’t these plants be built on their own grounds?
- Is business of construction materials really the sole driving force of these projects? Or does it involve a taming and domestication of the natural ecology keeping growth of tourism business in mind, even if it results in massive ecological degradation?
- How relevant are the concepts of compensatory afforestation and ‘biodiversity offsetting’ in the face of this colossal ecological footprint?
- What is the use of laws if projects and govt can bypass every form of community rights, since most subaltern does not speak for themselves?
- No cumulative impact assessment and carrying capacity study has been done of the small area of Ayodhya hills and its capacity to take the impacts of four massive pump storage capacity plants. There can be no case for taking up TPSP without such an assessment done in a transparent, participatory and credible way.
- Where is the justification for a new Pump Storage Project (that essentially consumes power, its net generation is negative) when we are doing NOTHING to manage and reduce peak demand, we are not optimising utilising existing peaking power capacities, when we are not utilising existing pump storage projects?[xvii]
- As per the latest monthly report from Central Electricity Authority[xviii], the peak power demand in W Bengal during April 2018 to Jan 2019 was 9130 MW and 99.9% or 9123 MW was already met. In whole of eastern India, the peak deficit during the period was just 1.8% which can be met even from reduction of T&D losses. Even during previous year of 2017-18[xix], peak deficit in W Bengal was 0.3% of 23 MW and the same for East India was 1.5%. So there is clearly no case for additional PSP project.
Kaushik Mukherjee and Sourav Prokritibadi (firstname.lastname@example.org)
Note: Authors thank resource person – S. Chakraborty and for assistance, Iman, Suchishree, Mekhla.
- An edited version of this was earlier published at: https://www.groundxero.in/2018/10/17/new-hydro-project-at-ajodhya-hills-recipe-for-a-disaster/.
[i] Before Present
[ii] Basak B., et al. (2014) Earliest dates and implications of microlithic industries of late pleistoscene from Mahadebbera and Kana, Purulia district, West Bengal, Current Science 107(7): 1167-71
[iii] Though it did get mentioned in earlier documents, including this 2002 report: https://sandrp.files.wordpress.com/2018/03/power_finance.pdf
[v] EIA, Introduction
[vi] The relevant portion of the Forest Factsheet
[vii] Data Collection Survey on Power Sector in India Final Report, JICA-EPDCL, January 2017, p. 5-57
[viii] The Minutes of the meeting can be seen here: http://environmentclearance.nic.in/writereaddata/Form-1A/Minutes/19022019VNI1HYP521MoMRVP_final.pdf
[ix] Request for Proposal for Selection of Transaction Advisor for Proposed Bandu Pumped Storage Project—Salient Features
[x] Data Collection Survey on Power Sector in India Final Report, JICA-EPDCL, January 2017, p. 5-57
[xii] Menon V., et al. (2017), Right of Passage: Elephant corridors of India [2nd Edition], Conservation Reference Series No. 3 Wildlife Trust of India, New Delhi (Section 5.03)
[xiii] Breman J., (1996) Cambridge University Press
[xiv] Environmental Impact Study of a Pumped Storage Project on Hilly Tract of Purulia, — A Remote Sensing GIS Analysis
[xv] Forest Rights Act 2006: Act, Rules and Guidelines
[xvi] A leaflet published by the villagers