Developer Maruthi Power Gen had fudged facts to show one project as two to circumvent clearances from Centre
The Karnataka forest department has cancelled the lease of two mini hydel projects in the Western Ghats for violating environmental laws. The projects were actually one big project which is under construction; the developer had shown it as two mini hydel projects on paper to circumvent the requirement of environment clearance and forest clearance from the Centre.
Maruthi Power Gen Limited, a Bengaluru-based power company, had applied for forest clearance in 2008 for its two mini hydel projects of 18.9 MW and 19 MW in Kagneri and Kanchanakumari reserved forests in Hassan district. The projects required diversion of 4.18 ha and 4.2 ha forestland respectively. The Union environment ministry's regional office had given the final approval for the diversion of forestland in 2009.
It was later found that the two projects were actually one and the company fudged information to bypass environment clearance and Centre's scrutiny for forest clearance. Hydel projects of below 25 MW and those which do not require more than 5 ha forestland, do not need to apply for environmental clearance and can obtain forest clearance from the regional office of the Union environment ministry. Besides, mini hydel projects are highly lucrative as they get subsidies from state and Central governments under renewable energy development schemes and can also avail benefits under the clean development mechanism of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change. Several such projects have been built in the region, undermining the conservation efforts of the biodiversity rich Western Ghats.
Petition set the ball rolling
The violations came to light when a public interest petition was filed by the Western Ghats Environment Forum in the Karnataka High Court to stop “ecologically damaging” mini hydel projects in the Western Ghats. The court, in 2011, halted around 18 such projects, but allowed Maruthi to carry on with the construction because it claimed that it had already completed 70 per cent work on the project.
But a subsequent site inspection forest department revealed that only 25-30 per cent work had been completed. The fact that the two mini hydel projects was actually one came to light during this inspection. In addition, various inspection reports of the forest departments also highlighted that the project had encroached upon forestland; the developer illegally constructed roads, bridges and a tunnel and hid the presence of endangered wildlife such as elephants in the project area.
In February this year, the Karnataka High Court asked the forest department to take suitable action and asked Maruthi to apply to the Union environment ministry for clearances. On April 16, the chief conservator of forests for Hassan cancelled the original leases of the two projects and ordered that the company should vacate the premises within 15 days. The forest department also recommended rejection of the fresh proposal of the company for forest clearance for the project in March, citing the floral and faunal importance of the proposed project area.
Boost for conservation
Sanjay Gubbi, the conservation biologist who was instrumental in halting nearly 15 small hydro projects in the Western Ghats of Karnataka, says the decision of the court and the forest department will go a long way in conservation of biodiversity. "Run-of-the-river small hydro projects though environmentally friendly outside critical wildlife habitats are causing severe loss/fragmentation of habitats in areas that harbour tigers, elephants, lion-tailed macaques and other globally significant wildlife species. Not to mention of the impacts on lesser fauna such as fish and amphibians that depend on micro-habitats that are yet to be assessed.”
Gubbi hopes the splitting of projects to bypass environmental clearance and Forest Conservation Act will now stop as this was one of main irregularities of these projects. “The long-term victory, however, is the decision taken by the government of Karnataka not to permit new mini hydel projects in reserved or deemed forests within the Western Ghats," he adds.
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