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Cabinet set deadline for Ken-Betwa link before it got clearances in place

Even as the union Cabinet cleared the Rs 44,605-crore Ken-Betwa link project (KBLP) in December 2021 with a eight-year deadline for completion, the project does not have the clearances to start work as yet.

Read | Ken Betwa link to new Goa airport to Odisha mine: 6 mega projects ignore green commitments they made

Here is why:

2016-2017: KBLP got wildlife, environment and preliminary forest clearances on condition that no units of the proposed 78-MW powerhouse would be constructed in “the forest area…to avoid constant disturbance in the Panna” tiger reserve. But KBLP is yet to submit a modified project plan of relocated power stations for fresh environment clearance.

2018-2019: Hearing a petition against KBLP’s wildlife clearance, the Supreme Court asked its Central Empowered Committee (CEC) to investigate the issue. The CEC recommended an examination of alternatives to meet irrigation and poverty alleviation targets set by specialised agencies, and a thorough study of KBLP’s impact on Panna, before approving the project. The Supreme Court is yet to decide on the matter.

“It is possible to relocate the power stations but as such, power is a minor project component. There is a case in the Supreme Court but no stay order,” said Bhopal Singh, director general, National Water Development Agency (NWDA) under the Jal Shakti ministry.

Freedom Sale Ken-Betwa link

2018-2021: Ministry of Jal Shakti repeatedly told the Environment Ministry that Madhya Pradesh could not find only 42.06 sq km revenue land for Panna tiger reserve instead of 60.17 sq km — a key precondition for KBLP’s final forest clearance.

Sunil Agarwal, Additional Principal Chief Conservator of Forest (Land Management) of Madhya Pradesh, said the compensatory afforestation rules allowed Central Government projects to overcome difficulties in finding revenue land by raising plantations over degraded forestland twice in extent of the shortfall. “So 36 sq km of degraded forest has been proposed in place of 18 sq km of revenue land but we have not heard from the (Environment) ministry yet,” he said.

However, the pre-condition does not concern compensatory afforestation. The preliminary forest clearance said that “merely adding forest area of adjoining forest divisions…will not be sufficient to compensate for the loss as these areas are as such available for use by the tiger and other wild animals” of Panna, and that “equivalent revenue and private land” will have to transferred to the reserve.

Ever since it was proposed by NWDA in 1995, KBLP has been considered unviable by several experts for its immense environmental cost. In 2011, then Environment Minister Jairam Ramesh rejected the project.

In August 2016, an Environment Ministry panel cautioned that the project “may not be the best possible option for addressing livelihood and development of the region” — and “it would be best to avoid such projects…when it runs the risk of providing justification or unhealthy precedence for more such developmental projects within the protected areas that will not be in the interest of wildlife and the overall well-being of the society in the long term.”

Explained | Ignoring green commitments: Weak political will, lack of a monitoring system

Rejected twice, Dibang got final forest nod despite non-compliance

In 2015, the preliminary forest clearance for India’s largest proposed hydel put a precondition of declaring a national park to protect the river basin. Despite no compliance, the final forest clearance was issued in 2020.

Dibang hydel

Consider this:

July 2013: The Environment Ministry’s statutory Forest Advisory Committee (FAC) rejected the project on the ground that the “ecological, environmental and social costs of diversion of such a vast tract of forestland, which is a major source of livelihood of the tribal population of the state, will far outweigh the benefits likely to accrue from the project.”

August 2013: In a meeting between the Power and Environment secretaries, it was decided that NHPC would reduce the requirement of forest land and submit a revised proposal.

December 2013: The Cabinet Committee on Investment (CCI) asked the Environment Ministry to “grant the requisite clearance for diversion of forest land expeditiously.”

February 2014: Arunachal Pradesh submitted a fresh application after reducing the proposed dam height by 10 m. This would cut the power generation capacity by 2.3% and the requirement of forest land by 9%.

April 2014: The FAC rejected it again, noting that the marginal cut in the requirement of forest land “may not be able to reduce the adverse impact of the project on such a biodiversity rich mature forest ecosystem to the extent which could make the project environmentally as well as socio-economically viable in forest dependent tribal society of Arunachal Pradesh”.

June 2014: The Power ministry asked the Environment ministry to reconsider the FAC’s decision.

September 2014: Nripendra Misra, principal secretary to the Prime Minister, wrote to the then Environment Secretary to clear the project expeditiously as per the decision of the CCI.

The Environment Ministry revived the project by asking NHPC to submit a “sensitivity analysis” of reduction of dam height by up to 40m. Submitting the analysis, NHPC claimed that “the decrease in dam height and consequent sacrifice of power generation beyond 10m reduction is not commensurate with the saving of forest land”.

The FAC recommended the project with a string of conditions, including declaration of the right bank of the proposed reservoir as a national park.

April 2015: The Environment Ministry issued in-principal approval.

September 2019: The state government requested the Environment Ministry for final clearance.

October 2019: The Environment Ministry sought a few clarifications, including the progress in declaring the right bank as a national park.

January 2020: The state’s response was silent on declaring a national park.

March 2020: The Environment Ministry issued final forest clearance despite non-compliance.

“Clearance for Dibang was conditional on giving protection to the river basin as a national park. If that was not feasible, the matter was to be sent back to the FAC. The Ministry cannot unilaterally decide to condone non-compliance and issue final clearance,” said conservation biologist Firoz Ahmed, who was an expert member of the FAC that recommended the project in 2014.

17 years on, Subansiri hydel yet to meet twice-diluted SC condition

The Lower Subansiri mega hydel project by NHPC, the public hydropower developer under the Ministry of Power, was cleared in the face of serious objections from several Ministry officials and expert members of the National Board for Wildlife (NBWL).

“I had put down my objections in the file notings. But it soon became apparent that the project would go ahead one way or the other,” said Vinod Rishi who served in the Ministry as Additional Director General (wildlife) during 2003-2004.

Subansiri hydel

Consider this:

2003: The project got wildlife, environment and preliminary forest clearances. Strict conditions were imposed after NBWL expert member Bittu Sahgal demanded that minutes should “accurately represent the decisions” made by the Board.

A petition challenging the project at the Supreme Court recorded how independent expert members of the NBWL were told that if they did not clear the Subansiri project, a reconstituted Board would do so in six weeks.

2004: Subansiri got final forest clearance after the apex court also made the clearance conditional on safeguarding the reserved forest area in the catchment of the project as a national park or sanctuary. Central Water Commission reports estimated that area at over 900 sq km.

2005-07: The state approached the Supreme Court, seeking relaxation. The apex court referred the issue to the NBWL.

2008: NBWL member Bibhab Talukdar put on record that Arunachal Pradesh had remained silent on the clearance conditions and allowed work to start before approaching the SC for modification in mid-2005.

A NBWL team proposed declaring “not less than 500 sq km” as sanctuary and other important hill sites as conservation reserve. Arunachal told the NBWL that the state was “not in a position to declare 500 sq km” due to “opposition from the local people” but could notify the 168-sq km Kamala reserved forest as a sanctuary.

The NBWL agreed, directing it to “declare 168 sq kms immediately as sanctuary and make serious efforts to bring additional 332 sq km reserved forests under the category of conservation reserve in consultation” with the ministry.

In a dissenting note, Talukdar objected to the choice of words — “make serious efforts” — that made the condition non-enforceable. As the events unfolded, even the word “immediately” in the condition would come to mean little.

2009: The Supreme Court approved the modified condition.

2013: Arunachal notified 49 sq km Ringba-Roba sanctuary.

2015: Arunachal notified 78 sq km Kamala sanctuary.

2022: Notification of 41 sq km as sanctuary and 332 sq km as conservation reserve remains pending.

December 16, 2021: The Environment Ministry wrote to the state, asking it to immediately furnish the compliance report of forest clearance conditions pending since 2004.

Goa promised 10 trees for every tree cut, knowing it had nowhere to plant

BY 2019, Goa had a backlog of 1,888 hectares in compensatory afforestation and, to quote the Public Accounts Committee, it was “becoming increasingly difficult to find vacant lands for raising plantations under different schemes” due to “other developmental land use/needs.”

Yet, Goa made an offer even the Supreme Court could not refuse. The stay on the Rs 3,000-crore Mopa airport project was lifted on the promise of planting 10 trees for every tree axed at the site, or 5.5 lakh saplings for 54,676 trees.

Mopa airport

Goa had five years to accomplish the task but it achieved 83 per cent of the target in less than two years. Now consider how the state did it:

2015: The Mopa project gets Environment clearance (EC).

2016: The EC is challenged at the National Green Tribunal (NGT) on the ground that Goa glossed over the existence of trees at the project site and failed to disclose its proximity to forests and water bodies.

2017: The NGT restrains cutting of trees, then lifts the stay on the state’s assurance that no tree would be cut without a valid order.

February 2018: A local forest officer permits felling trees.

March 2018: The Goa bench of Bombay High Court sets aside the permit.

August 2018: The NGT upholds the EC.

March 2019: The Supreme Court sends the project back to the Ministry for re-examination after suspending the EC for concealment of facts by Goa and non-application of mind by the Ministry’s expert panel.

April 2019: The expert panel re-recommends the project with Goa’s 10-for-1 tree formula.

January 2020: The Supreme Court lifts the stay.

2020-2021: “Over 4.6 lakh saplings have been distributed by the Goa State Biodiversity Board (GSBB) among residents, NGOs and institutions,” said Suresh Shanbhogue, director, civil aviation, Goa.

Since the trees felled for the airport were on non-forest land, Goa did not have to stick to the minimum plot size of 5 hectares for compensatory plantations or notify plantation sites as forest land. This allowed distribution of saplings to anyone across the state to meet the 5.5 lakh target.

“Such piecemeal, scattered plantations cannot compensate for the loss of 50,000 trees in a cluster which constituted a natural forest,” said Claude Alvares, director, Goa Foundation.

GSBB member secretary Pradip Sarmokadam said that the Institute of Wood Services Technology (IWST), Bangalore, was engaged to monitor the survivability of the saplings. Sources in the IWST said Goa was yet to provide “coordinates of those micro plantations — often a single plant at one location — spread all over the state”.

Meanwhile, the Goa forest department claimed an over three-fold jump in free distribution of saplings from 1.68 lakh in 2019-20 to 5.13 lakh in 2021-22 — over and above the 4.6 lakh saplings distributed for Mopa. “It is anybody’s guess who is planting so many saplings and where, given that Goa’s tree cover outside forests fell by 24 per cent (from 323 sq km in 2017 to 244 sq km in 2021) in just four years,” said a retired forest officer who served in the state.

National interest permits coal by road, villages choke on black dust

Mahanadi Coalfields Limited (MCL), a subsidiary of the world’s largest coal producer Coal India Limited (CIL), runs an opencast mine in Odisha’s Kulda. Barely 40 km away at Chhattisgarh’s Tamnar, Jindal Power Limited (JPL), a subsidiary of Jindal Steel & Power Limited (JSPL), operates India’s first mega thermal plant in the private sector.

Caught between the MiniRatna PSU and the world’s “second highest value creator” are a handful of villages on a cratered road where an unbroken convoy of coal-laden trucks runs virtually round the clock, choking lives and livelihood under a layer of black dust.

Kulda-Tamnar

Since 2015, affected villagers — over 15,000 in 14 villages — have reported a spike in cases of respiratory diseases, tuberculosis and cancer, contamination of water bodies and cropland, leading to loss of productivity and blackening of vegetables and paddy.

Last February, 16 protesters were arrested when they blocked the road. Subsequently, they have been cautioned by the local administration against allowing school students to sit on dharna.

Consider this:

2014-15: Supply of coal begins from MCL’s Kulda mine to JPL’s Tamnar plant. Transportation by road allowed March 2017 “by which time the CCPC (Close Circuit Pipe Conveyor)” should be put in place by JPL.

2016: CCPC much behind schedule. JPL’s road permission was extended until April 2017. Affected villagers petition the High Court.

2017: A High Court panel says stop coal trucks until roads widened and repaired. No action on ground. The ministry allows coal by road until October 2019.

2018: HC orders construction of coal corridor by 2018. Kulda gets Environment Clearance (EC) “in national interest” for expansion up to 14 MTPA for one year, to be extended if coal transport through village roads stopped.

2019: EC for Kulda extended by another year even as JPL sought extension of the road transport permission until December 2020 to develop a bulk rail transport system to lift coal.

January 2020: EC for Kulda expansion extended by 30 years while transport by village roads continues.

February 2020: JPL argued that the CCPC was not viable without dedicated coal allocation.

August 2020: JPL asked to follow the May 2021 gazette notification that required thermal plants to ensure transportation of coal by rail or conveyor.

October 2020: The Ministry clarified that coal could be transported by road until “infrastructure regarding rail/ conveyor system” was ready without specifying any deadline.

February 2021: On behalf of the affected villagers, Rajendra Naik from Ratanpur petitions the High Court again.

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March 2021: Kulda gets EC for another expansion up to 16.8 MTPA. The High Court asks the District Collector (DC) to find a solution to road transport of coal.

October 2021: The DC says stopping coal transport through villages “not at all considerable”.

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Asks Naik, the petitioner: “Can putting up asbestos walls or installing a few ACs in schools stop coal dust from getting in our water, our fields, our crops? How much would a conveyor or a bypass cost? Who decided that our lives were not worth that investment?”

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