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Red flags over forest stretch, power line from Raipur to Goa on pause

Rs 1,500-crore power transmission network for supply from Chhattisgarh to Goa, a 400kV line crossing the Western Ghats through Karnataka.

Nearly 2,700 trees were felled on private land for the proposed substation in Mollem, Goa. (Express Photo: Smita Nair)

QUESTIONABLE PROCESSES and clearances are now under scrutiny, resulting in a pause on the key section of a proposed Rs 1,500-crore power transmission network for supply from Chhattisgarh to Goa, a 400kV line crossing the Western Ghats through Karnataka.

The central project is designed to evacuate power from the Raigarh pool to energy-deficient Goa and was allotted to Goa Tamnar Transmission Project Limited (GTTPL), an SPV allotted to Sterlite Power, in November 2017.

Since then, environment lawyers and officials say, the company has broken up the mega grid into “piecemeal, low-impact projects”, instead of a “cumulative” whole, while seeking environment approvals under various laws.

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Last month, environment lawyer Sreeja Chakraborty, who is among the prime movers in the opposition to the project, flagged the “absence of any cumulative assessment” for the project in a letter to the Ministry of Environment, Forests and Climate Change (MoEF). “It is the responsibility of the state to access diversion proposals for any linear project in its entirety for comprehensive assessment of the requirement of forest land,” she said.

Explained | 120-year-old rail track at heart of green alarm in Goa wildlife sanctuary

According to Chakraborty, norms listed in the Handbook of the Forest Conservation Act, 1980, and Forest Conservation Rules (Guideline and Clarification), 2003, “have been overlooked”. Section 11.2 states that “any proposal for linear projects such as roads, railway lines, transmission lines, etc. need to be processed in their entirety for comprehensive assessment of requirement of forest land and consequences if approval for any forest land is not granted”.

In Karnataka, officials have conveyed to the MoEF that “no mitigation measures” have been proposed even though the project “bifurcates the entire landscape” of a UNESCO-tagged “global biodiversity hotspot”. In inspection reports, officials cautioned that the project “will compromise the integrity of the ecology of Kali Tiger Reserve”, and cause “permanent irreversible destruction” of the tiger habitat of the Malenad-Mysore Tiger Landscape.

The reports point to “degradation of surrounding contiguous forest habitats” in the Bhimgarh, Radhanagari and Koyna wildlife sanctuaries of Maharashtra, and the Cotigao and Netravali wildlife sanctuaries of Goa. These, they say, are corridors for “tigers, leopards, black panthers, dholes, bison, spotted deers, sambars, palm civet cat, hornbills among others”.

In this context, the state has “not recommended” approval for diversion of 177.09 hectares of its forest land to allow a 72-km “right of way”, which is part of a 94-km double-circuit segment. This is the supply end of a network of three transmission lines, two in Goa and one crossing into the state from Karnataka, and a substation in south Goa.

The MoEF has now sought “additional details” from Goa, while putting on hold clearance for diversion of forest land. It also cautioned that “as forest land is required in respect of this transmission line in Karnataka State, the proposal will have to be examined as fait accompli situation needs to be avoided”.

The MoEF has also pointed out that GTTPL and Goa’s Forest Department have not provided sufficient details of the “trees to be felled under the transmission line for regular maintenance works”. It said that this is “not sufficiently explained” in the company’s application, which says “35% of trees only are required to be actually felled out of enumerated trees”.

In Goa, officials said, permits for additional felling of forest trees will depend on compliance with compensatory afforestation after 2,670 trees were felled inside private land for the substation. Of the over 8,000 trees to “be planted before monsoon”, they said, less than 600 have been planted or pitted till July 2020.

A PIL and a complaint to the Supreme Court’s Central Empowered Committee have also been filed on the manner in which the projects are allegedly “misusing” environmental laws. When contacted, Chief Conservator of Forests, Subash Chandra, said: “Since the matter is sub-judice, let the honourable court decide. We cannot comment on any detail.”

According to the minutes of a video conference of MoEF’s Regional Empowered Committee on April 24, the company informed that the “transmission line projects are stand-alone projects and are not inter-linked”.

In a statement sent to The Indian Express, the company said the project consists of “five different elements” in the form of transmission lines going across Chhattisgarh, Goa and Karnataka, and a substation in Sangod. “Each of these elements has a completely different purpose and use without dependence on the other element, as per the agreement. Therefore, although they are a part of the same project, each of these transmission lines are independent and not linked to each other,” it said.

“Work shall commence only after we receive all approvals from both Goa and Karnataka officials for the Xeldum (Goa) to Narendra (Karnataka) Transmission line,” it said.

GTTPL’s public profile describes the project as “laying a grid of 240 km of transmission lines and one high-power substation” aimed to deliver an “additional 400kV”. But data compiled from records show that the project also involves a total diversion of 323.67 forest land with 1,05,745 trees, and 344.03 hectares of non-forest land, spread across the state and Karnataka.

The transmission line was among three projects cleared by the state and national wildlife boards — the two others were double-tracking of a 120-year-old rail line from Karnataka’s Hospet to Vasco and four-laning of the existing NH 4A. These projects now await clearance under the Forest Conservation Act for use of forest land for non-forestry purposes.

Nilesh Cabral, Minister in charge of Power and Environment in Goa, told The Indian Express: “Goa does not produce its own electricity like other states, so we have to depend on supply from national grids. We require another 400KV to ensure proper supply in Goa. We have a daily requirement of 650 MW of power.”

But on March 19, GTTPL invoked the Force Majeure clause — a common provision for unforeseen circumstances — citing the “outbreak of Covid-19”. It said that except for afforestation work, “operations are not resumed after invoking Force Majeure”. The project’s original scheduled date of competition was November 21, 2020.

“This project has been awarded by Ministry of Power, GOI. If the project is to be scrapped due to rejection of forest diversion clearance, this shall constitute Force Majeure event and financial liability will be as per the agreements,” the company said.

On the ground, meanwhile, the panchayat in Mollem, the sub-station site, has demanded jobs for local residents and put on hold the No-Objection Certificate for pending construction. Confirming the move, Sushant Bhagat, the Deputy Sarpanch, said: “They just came and started felling trees, none of us was taken into confidence.”

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