The Centre has granted environmental clearance for capacity expansion of two units of the Kaiga Atomic Power Project, and the construction of additional accommodation in the existing township in Karnataka’s Karwar taluk in the ecologically fragile Western Ghats.
A panel headed by noted ecologist Madhav Gadgil had in 2011categorised Karwar as an ecologically sensitive zone-1 (ESZ-1) because of its rich biodiversity and vulnerability to natural disasters. The Western Ghats Ecology Expert Panel (WGEEP) had recommended that no mining and thermal power plants, among others, be allowed in areas graded as ESZ-1.
Proceedings of an “environmental public hearing” held on December 15, 2018 show local people had strong reservations about the project. “Several local people have been objecting [to] the expansion of the proposed Kaiga project. They are in protest opposing the conduct of public hearing in project area instead of a public area. We are protesting for the last 35 years for the ill effects of the Kaiga project. Destruction of several lakhs of trees is for sure if another power evacuation line is constructed..,” said Anant Hegde Ashisara, an environmentalist from Uttar Kannada. Many other activists and locals voiced similar concerns.
It was in 1992 that the government had given first environmental clearance to the Nuclear Power Corporation of India Limited (NPCIL) to set up four units of the Kaiga Atomic Power Project with a capacity of 880 MWe [metre water equivalent]. The current proposal sought clearance for setting up of unit 5 and 6 to enhance the capacity to 1,400 MWe. According to an environment ministry letter dated August 5, 2019sent toNPCIL, “The major benefit of the project is generation of 1,400 MWe of clean power to meet the growing energy needs of the country.”
The river Kali flows from the east-west direction on the northern side of the project site, which is adjoining the Dandeli-Anshi Tiger Reserve. The minimum distance from the tiger reserve varies from 718m to 1,734m from Kaiga site.
About 8,700 trees will be felled for expansion of the atomic power project. “Operation of nuclear power plants at Kaiga has very insignificant impact on overall biodiversity of the region,” the letter states, adding that “people’s perception regarding the project in general is favourable specifically due to local infrastructure development, employment opportunities, area and business development etc.”
While the Gadgil committee had clearly spelt out that industrial projects of this nature cannot be allowed in an ecologically fragile area like Karwar, a study by Indian Institute of Science, Bangalore, published in 2016 titled, “Stimulus of developmental projects to landscape dynamics in Uttara Kannada, Central Western Ghats” found that there was an adverse effect on the aquatic fauna in the region because of the Kaiga project. Land use at Kadra dam adjoining the project site and buffer region shows a decline of evergreen forest from 69.92% (in 1973) to 50.98% (2013).
The environment ministry has not released the appraisal minutes of nuclear projects to the public, saying “this is sensitive information”. “The proceedings of environmental clearance for defence and nuclear projects are not published because [these] are sensitive information,” a senior environment ministry official said on condition of anonymity.
However, experts differ with this view. “The appraisal proceedings related to nuclear projects need to be made available to the public, just like thermal power plants or ports. These projects involve land use change of the most ecologically sensitive areas on the coasts or in forests. They also have direct impacts on livelihood and health of communities,” said Kanchi Kohli, lead researcher at the Centre for Policy Research (CPR), Delhi.
“It is a close to three decades of Principle 10 being accepted at the  Rio summit which asks all parties including India to ensure public participation and access to information a tenet for environmental decision making,” she added.