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Over 2,600 trees felled in Goa for power project: Law loophole, afforestation delay

With one monsoon missed and the second almost over, the Forest Department is “closely monitoring” the afforestation.

Trees felled for a substation site in Mollem, Goa. (Express photo by Smita Nair)

NOT ONLY is the process of clearances under scrutiny, red flags have been raised by officials over a delay in compensatory afforestation for over 2,600 trees that were felled in south Goa for a proposed Rs 1,500-crore power transmission network from Chhattisgarh.

Officials say that more than a year after Goa Tamnar Transmission Project Limited (GTTPL), an SPV with Sterlite Power that is executing the project, started felling 2,670 trees of wild species to clear land for a substation at Suktolim, it has planted less than 700 indigenous fruit trees of the 8,100 that were promised.

With one monsoon missed and the second almost over, the Forest Department is “closely monitoring” the afforestation. “Any future clearance for diversion of forest land and work permits for any intervention in forest limits will strictly depend on the company’s compliance to the afforestation scheme,” said a senior official. GTTPL has cited the “monsoon in 2019” and “ongoing Covid-19 pandemic” as reasons for the delay.

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The project proposes to evacuate power from the Raigarh pool to energy-deficient Goa, with one of its key sections — a 400kV line crossing the Western Ghats through Karnataka — awaiting forest clearance from the Ministry of Environment, Forests and Climate Change (MoeF).

The Karnataka Forest department, too, has flagged that a section of the project could cause “permanent irreversible destruction” to the “Malenad-Mysore Tiger Landscape”.

In south Goa, the trees were felled on 10-hectare “private land” between July 2019 and February 2020 after the state cleared the move under the Goa, Daman and Diu Preservation of Trees Act, 1984, which allows exemptions for private land even within forest limits.

Records show the file was cleared on February 4, 2019, by the state Environment Ministry under the then Chief Minister, Manohar Parrikar, at his residence — he was ailing at the time and passed away on March 17 that year. “We sought permission under this Act on October 9, 2018, and received the same on April 25, 2019,” the company said in a statement.

The route taken to grant permission was Section 31 of the Trees Act that allows exemptions to clear any area or any species of trees on private land “in public interest”. Significantly, on April 24 this year, objections were raised during a video conference of MoEF’s Regional Empowered Committee over granting clearance under the Forest Conservation Act to fell trees on “forest land” for the project.

The company said: “We have started the required afforestation and look forward to completing it by October 2020…we are planning to plant 8,000 trees, which would be about 6 feet tall and will achieve their full height in 3 years.”

Nilesh Cabral, Goa’s Environment Minister, promised “stringent rules and monitoring mechanisms will be put in place”. “If the trees do not grow in five years, we can take them to task,” Cabral told The Indian Express.

At the heart of the issue, say officials, is the fact that the “private land” was not identified as “private forest land” by various state committees set up after the Supreme Court ordered in 1996 that tree felling in all forest areas would be covered by the Forest Conservation Act 1980, irrespective of ownership.

“If this land had been identified as private forest land by any of these committees, none of these trees could have been felled under the State Act,” said an official.

The company purchased 12.40 hectares of the land — surveys 21/1 and 22/1 — from a joint family in July 2018, said one of the previous co-owners. Records show that survey 21/1 (10.30 hectares) has been marked for the substation.

“We work on survey numbers given by officials and previous committees. This survey number was not given to us. The surrounding land is private forest and the rest of the area is protected reserve forest,” said Rajendra Kerkar, an environmentalist who was on the last of those state committees in November 2012.

“This survey number does not show in records handed to us by the previous committee. We could not fully cover Sangod and Mollem, as we had a deadline,” said Dr Heman Karapurkar, who headed the committee in 2000.

Among the key criteria for demarcating private land as “forest” are: 75 per cent of felled trees should be of forestry species; area should be contiguous to forest and if in isolation, more than 5 hectares; and, canopy density should be more than 0.4.

Officials have identified several of the trees felled as forest species and pioneer tree species of Western Ghats and others endemic to moist deciduous forests.

In a query raised by the Deputy Conservator on November 5, 2018, the company replied that the land is situated “at a distance of 500 m from the highway, and has village settlements adjoining it”. However, The Indian Express found during a visit to the site in Mollem that the land does not adjoin any village settlement.

And, in an inspection report for trees in contiguous forest land, the Conservator of Forests noted the “average canopy density as 0.7” for trees of the same species.

Of an earlier batch of 500 trees to be planted in 2019, the company said only 400 could be planted “as per space availability” and “another 100 trees were handed over to the Forest Department, with the understanding to plant them whenever the space became available”.

Officials, however, described this as a “wrong approach”. “The responsibility and onus to plant each tree is on them if they need further clearance from the department,” said an official.

On a separate application for an approach road corridor on 0.55 hectares to access the substation plot, the Deputy Conservator pointed out that the “the area appears to be frequented by wild animals like Indian Gaur, Wild Boar, Sambar Deer, Jungle Hare, snake and avifauna such as Jungle fowl”.

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