A quarter century ago, scientists James Lovelock and Lynn Margulis, advanced a radical environmental idea: the Gaia hypothesis. They proposed that biological evolution is intricately linked with non-biological systems that drive the earth’s climate and chemistry, thus making life possible on earth. Most scientists scorned the idea. Fortunately, unlike religion, science is a self-correcting process: Gaia has now virtually become part of earth science. Lovelock’s “Global Heating” preoccupies all. To keep the earth habitable, a vast proportion of its surface should soon revert back to forests, swamps or grasslands.
In this radical transformation, green energy has become the sanjivini of our times. Lovelock favours nuclear energy as the only realistic option, but environmentalists of the ‘small is beautiful’ school aggressively advocate decentralised sources like wind and stream flows. And, thereby hangs a tragic environmental tale. The Western Ghats of Karnataka are recognised as a global hotspot of biodiversity and are the sources of several mighty rivers that sustain human society in peninsular India. This Malenadu landscape protects soils, regulates stream flows and stores carbon. It also harbours a variety of spectacular wildlife: tigers, elephants, lion-tailed macaques and great hornbills, to name a few.
Over the years, like elsewhere in India, Malenadu’s wilderness suffered the ravages of local subsistence pressures as well as development – forestry, mining, big dams and roads. However, because of many hardfought conservation battles, and although the Malenadu forests are a fragile mountain chain, they harbour more forests and wildlife than anywhere else in the Ghats. Ironically, the latest threat to the Malenadu forests has sprung from the most unexpected quarters: the well-meant promotion of green energy by environmentalists. About 150 remote forest sites are threatened by micro-hydroelectric or wind-power projects.
Each hydro project opens up remote river valleys to road construction, felling of trees, transport of machinery, obstruction of riverflow and the inflow of people who ravage the forests. No stream or waterfall in Malenadu is now safe from these little green monsters. While the hydro projects target river valleys, windmills hammer the hill tops. Bababudan Giris, the tallest peaks in Malenadu, protect vital watersheds of the river Bhadra and form a buffer of shola grasslands for the tiger reserve. Yet, 76 gigantic windmills will come up soon, after tearing up the ridge-line. As with hydro projects, road construction and the maintenance of these giant turbines will fragment and scar the shola grasslands around.
How can all this happen, you may protest, when we have the Forest Conservation Act, the Wildlife Protection Act and the Environmental Protection Act? Before we answer this question, let us look at why these green monsters have suddenly been unleashed. About a decade ago, eager to promote ‘green energy’, the government offered huge subsidies for establishing and running microhydel and windmill projects. This may not have been so bad if there were some restrictions on where and how. However, no such exceptions have been made.
Around the same time, the Environment Ministry was being systematically gutted to facilitate rapid project clearances. The diluted environmental impact assessment norms or just clever trickery helped green energy projects: larger projects were broken up into several components to duck under the two hectare ceiling for forest clearance approvals; officials were bribed to ignore gross violations of prohibition against intrusions into “forests” as defined by Supreme Court rulings or “wildlife habitats” as per wildlife laws. Environmental “experts” (often self-appointed) were employed to “green-wash” alternate energy projects.
Local politicians identified potential sites for green projects. Consultants pored over wind-flow charts and topographic sheets to
make proposals. An increasingly corrupt set of forest officials colluded with them to look the other way. Once approval was obtained, bigger fish in the energy business bought up these projects, paying out handsome markups to the first promoter. Project costs are inflated to ensure that subsidies cover all costs and net a neat profit before even one brick was laid. In some cases, the bigger companies have even claimed international carbon credits for projects that are actually destroying priceless rainforests! This wonderful business model has no uncertainties or risks, while the repositories of nature that we hold in trust for future generations are being looted.
A few valleys have been spared, thanks to strict officials or aggressive advocacy groups. At last count, 73 hydro-power and 76 windmills continue to threaten the spectacular, biodiversity-rich forests of Malenadu. All is not lost, however. Even now, if these perverse green subsidies are withdrawn, the Malenadu wilderness can be saved. But will the Government of India wake up in time to this green threat?