The proposed Sillahalla Pumped Storage Hydroelectric Project (SPSHEP) in Tamil Nadu’s mountainous Nilgiris district has evoked serious concerns among local residents and environmentalists.
In a bid to address peak-time power deficiency, the Tamil Nadu Generation and Distribution Corporation Limited (TANGEDGO) proposed SPSHEP to produce 1000 MW at Kundah taluk in Nilgiris. The project aims to construct two reservoirs and tunnels in Kundah region. This is in addition to the 10 existing dams and reservoirs in the Kundah-Bhavani basin.
As per a study conducted by WAPCOS Limited, the estimated cost of this project has been pegged at Rs. 4205 crores. An upper reservoir would be constructed in Bembatty village on Sillahalla stream which measures 260-feet in height. The 350-feet lower reservoir would be constructed next to the existing Kundah dam. The underground powerhouse for this project would have a headrace tunnel of 2862 meters, a 1240 meter main access tunnel, and a 1567 meter tailrace tunnel.
“The number of locations vulnerable to landslides in the Nilgiris has increased from 101 in 2009 to over 300 in 2020 as per the Geological Survey of India study report. Hundreds of landslides were seen in the Avalanche region during the 2019 and 2020 monsoon rains. With climate change and unpredictable weather patterns, the region could become more vulnerable if such large scale developmental projects are planned in this fragile landscape,” said Gokul Halan, a Nilgiris-based hydro-geologist.
Halan further said that the project would end up doing more harm than good to the Nilgiris. “Tunneling in the region will damage the jointed rock formations and destabilize the slopes causing mass wasting. Kundah river has already been tapped extensively for generating electricity with many dams along the catchment. Being one of the tributaries of the Bhavani river, the downstream flow has been highly reduced. More damming would lead to drying up of the river downstream,” he said.
Shivalingam, President of Sillahalla Environment and Social Association, said, “many people in Kundah taluk lost their homes in flash floods and landslides this year.” He claimed that officials ignored the natural characteristics of the place and accused them of deliberately avoiding the concerns of local residents. “One day they came and said that they are going to make a dam here,” he said, adding that: “If they are willing to repair the existing dams, they could generate excess power than the proposed system.”
According to official documents, 170 hectares of land would be submerged in water. In addition, 145 hectares of government, private, and forest land would be acquired for water conductor systems, powerhouse, and other project-oriented needs.
“From tea to potatoes, we grow all kinds of mountain vegetables here and it is the primary source of livelihood of hundreds of north Indians too. We really don’t know what would happen, if the said dam starts to function fully,” said Bhojan, a local farmer.
A report from the government stated that the project would not function on any reserved forests or habitats of wild animals. However, NGOs and environmentalists have pointed out that the proposed land includes tiger habitat. Local communities and tribal people have their holiest places and ancestral lands on the site.
When asked about the impact of having this project, Kotagiri-based NGO Keystone Foundation told The Indian Express: “An estimated 10,000 families of small tea and vegetable growers who are also from the Badaga community stand to lose their lands. The vast stretches of vegetable cultivation will be affected leaving many more people affected along the value chain.”
A campaign titled ‘Save Sillahalla’ was launched wherein NGOs and local residents came together to sign a petition to raise awareness in order to “protect the Nilgiris”. As per environmentalists, the proposed site falls under the eco-sensitive zone classified by the Western Ghats Ecology Expert Panel.
In August, the Expert Appraisal Committee (EAC) of the Union Ministry of Environment Forest and Climate Change directed TANGEDCO to address the issues raised by people. The Central government made the decision to conduct an environmental impact assessment on the project.
“People may have different opinions about the upcoming project. Some think of settling with the compensation amount from the government, but most of us rely on the cultivation. The cultivation area on the proposed site is generally community lands and we don’t have individual rights or documents on that area, so the compensation for the lands would become a big issue. We have given our petition to CM Edappadi Palaniswami, to provide an individual document for our properties, on his recent visit to Ooty,” said Arjunan, Bembatty village’s Badaga community leader.
“We had given our lands for development and other projects previously but are yet to receive the compensation. Along with local communities, we will stage peaceful protests against the project and are looking for the legal process to get a stay on the project,” Shivalingam added.