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

There are six mega projects across key sectors, cleared between 2004 and 2020. In each, stringent conditions to compensate for the project's high environmental impact have been sidestepped, ignored or, in some cases, met only on paper, an investigation of their records by The Indian Express revealed.

A result of this was that vast national parks and sanctuaries were mandated but never declared and coal-laden trucks ply through villages, spreading toxic dust.

One of them is in the strategic border state of Arunachal, the proposed largest hydel plant in India; the other is on the state’s border with Assam, currently the largest hydel project under construction. Then there’s the proposed new international airport in Goa; a mine in Odisha run by the world’s largest coal producer; the country’s first private mega thermal plant in Chhattisgarh — and, finally, the flagship river-linking project in Madhya Pradesh.

These are six mega projects across key sectors, cleared between 2004 and 2020. In each, stringent conditions to compensate for the project’s high environmental impact have been sidestepped, ignored or, in some cases, met only on paper, an investigation of their records by The Indian Express has revealed.

The result: vast national parks and sanctuaries were mandated but never declared; saplings were distributed to just about anyone to make up for the loss of a natural forest; and coal-laden trucks ply through villages, spreading toxic dust as promised alternatives were never put in place.

Ken-Betwa River Link, MP

In December 2021, the Union Cabinet set a eight-year deadline for completing the Rs 44,605-crore project to bring “surplus water” to Bundelkhand for irrigation, drinking water, flood control and hydel power — earlier this week, the Budget earmarked Rs 1,400 crore.

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But work cannot start anytime soon: KBLP’s wildlife clearance (WLC) is sub-judice; its powerhouse needs a fresh environmental clearance (EC); and it has been trying to sidestep a crucial precondition for forest clearance (FC).

Ken-Betwa link “poses a serious challenge to the very objective of the legislature in enacting” green laws: SC panel. (Express Photo)

A final FC is issued only on compliance of the conditions set out in the preliminary or Stage-I FC. A key condition of KBLP’s Stage-I FC issued in 2017 requires Madhya Pradesh to compensate for diversion of 60.17 sq km forest land by adding an equal parcel of revenue land to the Panna tiger reserve.

Since 2018, the Ministry of Jal Shakti has repeatedly informed the Environment Ministry that Madhya Pradesh could identify only 42.06 sq km of revenue land, and that it may consider “double of the remaining 18.11 sq km ie 36.22 sq km degraded forestland” to meet the 60.17 sq km commitment.

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Ken-Betwa link

Bhopal Singh, director general, National Water Development Agency (NWDA) under the Jal Shakti Ministry, told The Indian Express that the proposal was “still under consideration”.

Other key FC pre-conditions, such as declaring three sanctuaries as Panna’s satellite cores, re-counting trees to be cut, revising the project’s cost-benefit analyses to justify its viability, are still pending.

“Recounting the trees will be expensive as the project area is very large. We are working on adding the sanctuaries to Panna but there is not much progress yet,” said Sunil Agarwal, Additional Principal Chief Conservator of Forest (Land Management), MP.

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NWDA’s Singh, however, assured that the Government would “certainly meet the project deadline”.

Point to note: the Supreme Court is yet to decide on its Central Empowered Committee’s 2019 report that sought thorough studies on the environmental impact of KBLP which, it said, “poses a serious challenge to the very objective of the legislature in enacting” wildlife and forest laws.

3,000-MW Dibang multipurpose project, Arunachal Pradesh

After rejecting it twice in July 2013 and April 2014, the Environment Ministry’s Forest Advisory Committee (FAC) recommended the project for preliminary approval in September 2014. The project is part of India’s Act East Policy.

One of the conditions for the green signal required Arunachal to secure the ecological diversity of the Dibang river basin by declaring the right bank of the proposed reservoir as a national park.

Dibang hydel

However, in October 2019, when the Environment Ministry sought an update on this condition, the state’s response in January 2020, records show, remained silent on that specific query.

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And yet, the Environment Ministry granted the final forest clearance to Dibang in March 2020.

Senior officials in the Arunachal Pradesh Forest department and the Environment Ministry did not respond to emails and phone calls from The Indian Express seeking comment.

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“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.

2,000-MW Lower Subansiri hydel project, Arunachal-Assam border

For this project, which is strategic in the race over water resources with China, a key condition for clearance was laid down by the National Board for Wildlife (NBWL) and reiterated by the Supreme Court in 2004: protection of reserved forests in the catchment and the submergence area by declaring a national park or sanctuary. Central Water Commission reports estimated that area at over 900 sq km.

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As the Arunachal Pradesh government dragged its feet, the Environment Ministry in 2007 quantified the area as “not less than 500 sq km”. But citing local opposition, the state said in 2008 that it could notify only 168 sq km as a sanctuary.

Subansiri hydel

The Ministry agreed and asked the state to bring the remaining 332 sq km reserved forests under the category of conservation reserve, which is essentially a buffer zone. The Supreme Court also accepted the modification in 2009.

But records investigated by The Indian Express show that until now, only 127 sq km in two unconnected patches have been notified as sanctuaries in the Subansiri basin: 49 sq km of Ringba-Roba in 2013 and 78 sq km of the Kamala reserved forest in 2015. The conservation reserve has not been marked at all.

Top officials in the Arunachal Pradesh Forest department and the Environment Ministry did not respond to emails and phone calls from The Indian Express seeking comment — the first questionnaire was sent on December 8, 2021.

On December 16, 2021, the Environment Ministry wrote to the state, asking it to immediately furnish the compliance report of FC conditions pending since 2004.

“This is a classic fait accompli where you allow project work to begin on tough conditions which are forgotten soon after. Penal action for non-compliance is discouraged to protect big investments,” said M K Ranjitsinh, who was part of the NBWL in 2003.

Mopa International Airport, Goa

The Supreme Court suspended Environmental Clearance in 2019 for what it called “non-disclosure of vital information” on this “zero-carbon” project conceived to handle 13 million passengers per year and relieve pressure on Dabolim airport. While seeking EC, the Goa government had claimed — inaccurately — there were no forest, lakes, ecologically sensitive areas or rivers within 15 km of the proposed site.

Mopa airport

The stay was lifted in January 2020 after Goa offered to plant 10 trees for every tree axed at the project site in Mopa. That worked out to 5.5 lakh saplings for 54,676 trees and the state claims to have achieved over 80 per cent of the target in less than two years.

Here’s the catch.

Since the trees felled for the airport were on non-forest land, the state did not have to stick to the minimum plot size of 5 hectares while finding land for plantation or notify those plots as forestland. The saplings were instead “successfully distributed” among residents, NGOs and institutions across the state — or just about anyone to meet the target.

“We will plant 50,000 saplings at the airport site during landscaping once the work is complete. Of the remaining 5 lakh, already 4.6 lakh saplings have been distributed by the Goa State Biodiversity Board (GSBB),” said Suresh Shanbhogue, Director, Civil Aviation, Goa.

Few are convinced. “Such piecemeal, scattered plantations cannot compensate for the loss of 50,000 trees in a cluster which constituted a natural forest. Anyway, who is going to audit the number of saplings actually distributed and their survival rate across thousands of locations?” asked Claude Alvares, director, Goa Foundation.

GSBB member secretary Pradip Sarmokadam said that an undertaking was obtained from every recipient of free saplings, and that the Institute of Wood Services Technology (IWST) has been engaged to monitor survivability.

IWST director MP Singh said the success of monitoring would depend on the quality of distribution records. Sources in the institute said Goa is yet to provide “coordinates of those micro plantations — often a single plant at one location — spread all over the state”.

The state, meanwhile, is already 46 per cent short of its overall compensatory afforestation goals.

Kulda coal mine, Odisha & Tamnar Thermal Plant, Chhattisgarh

The projects serve national interest “in view of the shortage of coal in the country and the resulting power crisis”. In February 2018, when Mahanadi Coalfields Limited (MCL) applied for capacity expansion at its mine in Odisha’s Kulda, the Environment Ministry expressed “deep concern over…the status of statutory compliances” before allowing it “in national interest” for one year.

The EC was extendable subject to compliance of conditions that barred transportation of coal on roads passing through villages.

Kulda-Tamnar

In December 2018, the compliance report by the ministry’s regional office said that special road corridors were constructed. This claim was repeated to obtain a one-year extension of the EC in March 2019 and then again for an extension by 30 years in January 2020.

But all this while, trucks carried coal from Kulda through villages to reach Tamnar thermal plant run by Jindal Power Limited (JPL) in Chhattisgarh. They still do.

According to JPL’s own submission to the Environment ministry in 2020, 4,187 tonnes of coal is transported daily from Kulda to Tamnar in 200 dumpers of 21-tonne capacity, requiring 400 daily trips or a truck passing every 3-4 minutes, round the clock, through 14 villages with a combined population of over 15,000 as per Census 2011.

Officials at MCL and the Ministry’s regional office did not respond to emails and calls from The Indian Express.

JPL started sourcing coal for Tamnar from Kulda in 2014. By 2015, Tamnar’s environmental clearance was amended twice to allow transportation of coal by road as an interim measure until March 2017 “by which time the CCPC (Close Circuit Pipe Conveyer)” was to be “put in place”.

Subsequently, the Environment Ministry granted another three extensions — in 2017, 2019 and 2020 — to the “interim permission” before doing away with a deadline altogether.

In May 2020, a gazette notification required all thermal plants to transport coal by rail or conveyor. Five months on, the ministry clarified that “coal may be transported by road” until “infrastructure regarding rail/ conveyor system” was ready.

In an email, a JPL spokesperson said that the construction work on a CCPC from Kulda could not be accelerated due to the non-availability of dedicated coal linkage. “JPL has also planned to develop a dedicated railway siding…(pending which) JPL will continue transportation of coal by road from Kulda by the ministry’s gazette notification dated 21.05.2020,” it said.

In multiple representations to various authorities over the years, affected villagers have complained of a spike in respiratory illness, and contamination of water bodies and cropland, leading to loss of productivity and blackening of vegetables and paddy.

In October 2021, asked by Orissa High Court to find a time-bound solution, the district collector of Sundargarh wrote: “The prayer of the villagers regarding stoppage of Coal Transportation by the Multi Axle Vehicles is not at all considerable.”

***

Unconditional Clearance

1. Ken-Betwa Link
Got Cabinet nod with 8-yr deadline for implementation. SC yet to decide on wildlife clearance; final forest clearance pending as MP yet to meet key pre-conditions, such as adding 60 sq km of revenue land to Panna Tiger Reserve.

2. Dibang hydel
Rejected twice, got Stage-1 forest clearance in 2015 on condition that right bank of proposed reservoir would be national park. Final forest clearance was issued in 2020 despite non-compliance.

3. Subansiri hydel
Granted forest clearance in 2004 on condition that over 900 sq km in catchment would be declared sanctuary. Requirement cut to 500 sq km, later to 168 sq km sanctuary and 332 sq km conservation reserve. Only 127 sq km notified so far.

4. Mopa airport
In 2020, Goa promised SC 10 trees will be planted for every tree cut although state is nearly 50% short on overall compensatory afforestation. State meeting target by distributing lakhs of saplings.

5 & 6. Kulda coal mine, Tamnar thermal
Since 2014, three extensions to coal mine and five temporary concessions to thermal plant on promise of alternative transport arrangement. Coal trucks still make 400 daily trips through villages.

***

Responding to this report in The Indian Express, Bhopal Singh, director general, National Water Development Agency, wrote: “The article questions the decision of the government for the central support and implementation of the Ken-Betwa Link project (KBLP) pending final forest clearance. The argument is unfounded and devoid of ground realities in the Bundelkhand region which faces frequent drought conditions and migration of people.

“The stage-II forest clearance is granted on fulfilling the conditions of stage-I clearance. The progress on these conditions can be made only after approval of the project by the government and providing budgetary support. The provision of Rs 4,300 crore in the budget of 2021-22 and Rs 1,400 crore in the next year have been made primarily for land acquisition and transfer of requisite non forest land/degraded forest land for compensatory afforestation etc…

“KBLP will impact about 4,206 ha core area of PTR and and another 1,372 ha area in Panna Tiger Reserve buffer. This loss of core area of PTR is being compensated by providing equal non-forest land in the vicinity of PTR for compensatory afforestation. The loss of buffer area is also being compensated by double the degraded forest land in the vicinity…

“The government is very serious about conserving the ecosystem of the region, particularly the PTR. Apart from mitigation measures planned to be taken under Environment Management Plan, a Landscape Management Plan (LMP) is under finalization by Wildlife Institute of India (WII) under the supervision of National Tiger Conservation Authority (NTCA), PTR department, Forest Departments of both the states and Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change. KBLP will definitely bring economic prosperity to this backward area due to increased agricultural activities and arrest the migration of the people from the region.”

The Indian Express replies: The report neither questioned the budgetary support to KBLP nor the “ground realities” of Bundelkhand. It investigated records to show how the government set a deadline for completing the project even before it was granted all statutory clearances. It also contacted Bhopal Singh, DG, NWDA, on the pending clearances and quoted him accurately.

On the NWDA’s plan of compensating PTR’s loss with “double the degraded forest land” in the vicinity, the news report quoted the Stage-I forest clearance which 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 tiger reserve.

The Indian Express stands by its report.

First published on: 04-02-2022 at 04:38 IST
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