Moving NGT on Mullaperiyar can boomerang on Kerala

Kerala’s move to approach the National Green Tribunal against raising of the water level in Mullaperiyar dam is likely to boomerang on Kerala.

Environmental arguments similar to those against raising of reservoir level can be raised against lowering the reservoir level also.

In fact, changes to the ecosystem created by the dam and its water will be more pronounced while lowering the water level.

Kerala’s argument is that the raising of water level in the reservoir submerged nearly four decades old vegetation just above 136 feet level in Periyar Tiger Reserve. Lush vegetation including some specialised species have grown in the local environment created by lowering of the water level.

Now, let us look at what will happen if water level is reduced to 132 feet as demanded by Kerala at one point of time, or eventual phased decommissioning of dam. Lowering of the water level will result in the water table going down in many parts of Periyar Tiger Reserve. This would cause a relative drought conditions in many parts of the Sanctuary compared to the present situation and will loss of biodiversity and density of vegetation. The specialised species will not survive in its original location.

Legal position:
Environmental impact argument is something rejected by the Supreme Court in its 2006 verdict itself. However, Kerala tried to raise it again when Tamil Nadu challenged Kerala’s dam safety legislation before Supreme Court. For doing this, it commissioned a scientist from West Bengal, who produced a study report within a matter of weeks. The report had several errors and it was essentially a reproduction of arguments made by KFRI over which Kerala had argued its case earlier. Though these mistakes had been pointed out, Kerala went ahead with producing the author as a witness before the Court. During cross-examination, he admitted he had copied from the KFRI report. This meant that Kerala had no new argument or point to be presented before the Court. Now, Kerala is trying to revive its lost cause by approaching NGT.  It is not even considering the fact that Supreme Court is above NGT.

In any case it will be a win-win situation for TN. If the NGT rejects Kerala’s prayer, TN will have another handle. If it upholds Kerala’s argument, TN can use it in future against lowering of the water level or decommissioning of the dam.

Kerala’s argument goes against what the State itself is proposing to do. The new dam it is proposing to build at Mullaperiyar will submerge some areas of Periyar Tiger Reserve. It is also seeking Central clearance for raising the height of Peppera dam near Thiruvananthapuram by at least three metres submerging about 80 acres of forest. Though the area submerged by increased water level in Mullaperiyar dam is larger than these, the forests that would be submerged by the new Mullaperiyar dam or augmentation of Peppara dam are part of ecosystems that are hundreds of years old. Obviously, much more value is to be attached to the latter.

Moreover, Kerala has done the same thing that TN is doing. Water level at Idukki reservoir had remained low for about three decades. Kerala carried out augmentation scheme under Idukki project to improve inflow. None batted an eyelid, when vegetation that grew over the period was submerged by increasing water level. Besides, the area being submerged at Mullaperiyar was leased to TN much before the enactment of environmental laws.

If we really care for environment (instead just using environmental arguments with the wrong belief that it will win a case in which the key issue is safety), we should demand environmental flows downstream of Mullaperiyar dam, abandon the proposal for new dam and seek phased decommissioning of the old dam.

Silver Jubilee of Save Kurinji Campaign

kurinji 2014 bloom-in-meadow

Kurinji in bloom on hill slopes near Munnar in 2014

Tholkapiar sang centuries ago about neelakurinji plants that blossoms like a carpet over the mountain peaks once in 12 years. Today, that plant is part of a threatened ecosystem—the shola grasslands.

In September 1989, a group of nearly 40 men and women set out from Kodaikanal on foot to have a look at the plant and campaign against its destruction. They included members of the Palani Hills Conservation Council, Kodaikanal; Asambu Greens, Trivandrum; and a host of nature lovers and activists. The march led to the formation of the Save Kurinji Campaign Council soon after. This year marks the 25th anniversary of the march. The participants of the march will be gathering again in Kodaikanal on October 2 to commemorate the jubilee. There will also be a meeting in Munnar on October 4.

About Neelakurinji

Neelakurinji (Strobilanthes kunthiana) is a shrub that used to grow abundantly in the shola grasslands of Western Ghats in India. It flowers gregariously once in 12 years. However, on different locations, the flowering may take place in different years. Thus, kurinji has flowered in some areas of Munnar and Kodaikanal from July this year. However, it will flower in places like Rajamalai and other parts of Eravikulam National Park only in 2018. (The last flowering there was in 2006).

Once, kurinji used to cover the entire Nilgiris like a carpet during its flowering season. However, now plantations and dwellings occupy much of their habitat. Destruction of shola forests have also reduced its presence in Munnar and neighbouring areas.

Save Kurinji Campaign

The campaign had actually started in the eighties after K. V. Surendranath (then  Member of Kerala Assembly), Dr. Velayudhan Nair, Suresh Elamon, G. Rajkumar and P. K. Uthaman had a rare glimpse of gregarious flowering of kurinji in shola grasslands between Kodaikanal and Munnar, most of which were soon after converted into pine plantations. The campaign was also prompted by destruction of the habitat by fire and encroachments.

After the 1989 march, the campaign continued through the past 25 years. Several marches, exhibitions, talks and programmes were organised. One of the prominent marches was one that was held in 1990 when kurinji was in full bloom at the same locations as they are now. There was also a major march in 2006 and programmes in connection with the formation of Kurinjimala Sanctuary.

The campaign had contributed significantly in crystallising the idea of a sanctuary to protect the kurinji habitat and release of a commemorative stamp on kurinji in 2006. The blooming of neelakurinji and the need to protect its habitat got media attention thanks to the campaign. During 1990 and 2006, thousands of people flocked to Munnar to see the kurinji bloom and a kurinji fest was organised by the Government at Munnar in 2006.

Kurinjimala Sanctuary:

The Kerala Government notified part of the habitat of kurinji (shola forests) as the Kurinjimala Sanctuary in 2006. It comprises of 32 square kilometres in the Kottakamboor and Vattavada villages in Idukki district of Kerala. The declaration of the sanctuary was made by then Minister for Forests Benoy Viswam at the Neelakurinji Fest at Munnar on October 7, 2006.

The sanctuary is contiguous to the Chinnar Wildlife Sanctuary and Anamudi and Pampadum Shola National Parks.

The Government notification said that the sanctuary would ensure the long-term protection of the entire biodiversity of the area, especially Strobilanthes kunthiana and its habitat. Private land holdings having titles in the villages are excluded from the sanctuary area.

Related:

You may also want to read my original report http://kurinji.in/march.html on which this post is partly based.