Tribal families around the project site are living in constant fear of losing their lives and homes
A portion of the Western Ghats at Habbanahalli village in Karnataka’s Hassan district collapsed March 14, 2022, damaging pipelines and a tunnel laid for the Yettinahole water project. The inofrmation was confirmed by officials of the Karnataka Neeravari Nigam Limited (KNNL), the lead authors of the project.
Over 2,000 tonnes of loose soil slid down the hill and fell on about two kilometres of pipeline in the most difficult terrain of the Western Ghats. The landslip has also damaged a tunnel constructed for the maintenance of the pipeline.
The Yettinahole diversion project is being planned by KNNL as a drinking water supply scheme. The government-owned corporation aims to fill up 725 tanks in five districts with 24 thousand million cubic feet (tmc) water lifted from the depths of the Western Ghats at Yettinahole to the ridgeline of the Shirady ghat at Sakleshpur. The water will then be pumped into a pipeline that stretches 873 kilometres, denuding 600 acres of forests.
A large precipice was created during construction of the tunnel that was damaged. This was an engineering failure, said MG Hegde, leader of the Save Netravathi River movement. The precipice has a large mass of loose earth precariously perched, has no barrier and can collapse any moment, the expert added.
The precipice was affected by heavy rainfall last year, said officials on KNNL who did not want to be named. It started sliding when the soil dried up this year, according to KNNL sources.
Local residents whose lives have been impacted by the project. Photo: Author
The situation has created a humanitarian crisis, as many tribal families who live near the unstable area are in the fear of losing their houses, small patches of farms and, most importantly, their lives and livestock.
“Along with my house, there are thirteen other families that are living on the line of danger,” said Ramesh, a local resident.
The tunnel near Ramesh’s home recently collapsed. A dynamite used during construction damaged the walls of over 100 residences in Hebbanahalli and Mugali village, cracking the walls of the school buildings. Almost every home is unsafe to live in, he said.
Lokayya, a resident of Hebbanahalli, said:
We have erected a house on the same site, cultivating coffee, nuts and coconut for the last 50 years. But since the pipeline came up, our lives have become hell and we have nowhere else to go.
The superintendent engineer of the Vishweshwaraiah Water Corporation, another government-owned corporation supervising the project, has been notified of the evacuation of 13 houses that are in danger, as well as for safety and precaution, according to locals. But they have declared they will not move out without adequate compensation and alternative dwellings.
The scheme involves eight dams in the Western Ghat forests, a reservoir that will submerge 1,200 hectares of land and two villages, and will require 370 megawatts of electricity to pump the water.
The project, which will transfer water from Netravathi basin to Hemavathi basin over the Western Ghats, will have far-reaching consequences. The sweet water dumping into the Arabian sea is expected to come down by 30 per cent once the project becomes functional.
This is the first major inter-basin river water transfer of Karnataka that has come up in the highly eco-sensitive western ghats. The project was initially called the Netravathi river diversion project but was later renamed Yettinahole stormwater lift project, following the protests. Residents of two districts of Hassan and Dakshina Kannada, share a common bond with the river Netravathi, and opposed the project.
The government has spent Rs 22,000 crore for lifting water from Dakshina Kannada district and supplying it to Chikkaballapura district about 220 kilometres away. “If this project gives even a drop of water to Chikkaballapura I will hang myself," challenged Bhoje Gowda, a member of the legislative council.
This is a money-making project for many, said Hegde. “I have a list with all the beneficiaries of the project and I will drag them to the open when it is time.”
The project was prepared at a cost of Rs 12,000 crores, according to a KNNL official.
Kishore Kumar, an activist and advocate from Hassan, said:
The project of such large environmental damage and funding did not even have one public hearing either in Hassan or Dakshina Kannada district. The line estimation of the project, right from the original drafting by late G Paramashivaiah to the most recent principals at the Vishveshwaraiah water board, was not made public. I heard the funding has been enhanced to Rs 18,000 crores from the original 12,000 crores since 2011.
As many as 43 Gram Panchayats in Belthangady, Uppinangady and Shirady have passed a resolution to deny permission to laying of pipeline or any other civil works connected to the project. Many other panchayats on the banks of the river Netravathi in Buntwal and Mangaluru taluks are now contemplating officially joining the struggle through passing anti project resolutions.
“We will not be able to stop any civil works with our resolutions, but if the government goes against the panchayat resolutions it will be a violation of the Panchayat Raj act under which the government,” said Sundar Shetty, an expert on Panchayat Raj. “Executive agencies like Niravari Nigama, their contractors and even suppliers could be hauled up for violation.”
The project had been mired in controversy ever since it was conceived by the controversial chief engineer of the state, late Paramashiviah.
The water was being lifted at one of the major tributaries of the Netravathi river systems from the Western Ghats. So, the coastal voters are now questioning why the state politicians, including the three chief ministers, three members of Parliament (Shobha Karandlaje of Udupi, Ananth Kumar Hegde of Uttara Kannada and Nalin Kumar Kateel of Mangaluru) and all the 18 members of legislative assemblies did not raise the question on the floor of the house in the state legislature or Lok Sabha.
They were armed with the environmentalists with all the facts and details mentioned in the report by Western Ghats Ecology Expert Panel, said an expert.
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