By Baba Umar
THE MONSOON-MANGLED road from Patan tehsil to Ghanbi village in Maharashtra’s Western Ghats is not heavily used. From here, 15 km of a muddy stretch leads to Gojegaon, bordering what was supposed to be Koyna Wildlife Sanctuary. But unexpectedly, amid lush vistas of shrubbery and grass, one sees unending columns of wind turbines, locally called pawan chakki. The entire plateau from Gojegaon to Vankusawade, where 215 windmills have come up, hardly seems to be part of the sanctuary.
“Windmills were installed here more than a decade ago,” says former Ghanbi sarpanch Laxman Ramchander Jadav, 62. “We thought we will get more electricity but this isn’t the case. Nobody knew the land was actually inside the proposed sanctuary.” Adding to the toll, almost 1,200 land deals have been quietly finalised since 1985.
Koyna, declared a sanctuary in 1985, is located in the Jawali and Patan tehsils of Satara district. In January 2010, the 423 sq km area was proposed as the northern part of the Sahyadri Tiger Reserve with the 317 sq km Chandoli National Park at its south. BirdLife International, a network of bird conservation agencies, has declared it sensitive. And efforts to get it enlisted as a world heritage site too are serious.
Koyna sanctuary has not been notified even after 25 years of its declaration. In 1993, 2000 and 2002, the Forest Department excluded non-forest areas of 14 villages from the sanctuary without referral to the Centre and Supreme Court for approval. Windmills were allowed to come up with the Revenue Department asserting that the villages fall in the to-be-excluded space. After the Bombay High Court asked the Forest Department on 18 October 2010 to evict the windmill owners, state Chief Secretary Ratnakar Gaikwad conceded that violations of Wildlife (Protection) Act in Koyna sanctuary have taken place on non-forest land proposed for deletion.
The area, laced with dense rainforests and loaded with biodiversity — key among them being endangered black-striped tiger, leopard, Indian bison, giant squirrel, pangolin, sloth bear, mouse deer and wild dogs — has been made available for 215 windmills, 10 resorts and an earthen dam.
The damage to the environment is manifold. The Koyna portion of the tiger reserve has windmills on its eastern front, resorts and land deals taking place in its southern area while only a km wide corridor has been left for tigers to cross into the Chandoli portion of the reserve. This could choke the movement of the tigers and leopards. Endangered species like the white stork and red-headed vulture no longer make flights here because of the loud humming of the wind turbines. More than 500 trees have been cut in Navja village after 40 land deals were signed. More than 4,000 hectares of tiger territory is feared to have been encroached or sold.
Windmills have been erected inside the sanctuary
Resorts have been constructed inside the sanctuary
Land deals have been finalised in Koyna since 1985
Trees felled in Navja village after 40 land deals were signed
Hectares of tiger territory have been sold or encroached
Length of the road (in km) illegally built inside the sanctuary
IT WAS when the Forest Department published a map of Sahyadri Tiger Reserve in 2010 that I came to know about the grave violations,” says Nana Khamkar, 40, whose RTI applications revealed a massive violation of the forest and wildlife laws.
The RTI replies revealed that a 6.4-km road constructed under the Pradhan Mantri Gram Sadak Yogjna was ‘illegally’ built inside the sanctuary in violation of the SC orders. The replies revealed felling of almost 550 trees inside the sanctuary at Navja village and the presence of windmills in Gojegaon, Aral and Kusawade, mostly erected by energy major Suzlon for Tata Motors, Bajaj Auto and pan masala majors such as Dhariwal and Ghodawat.
Further into the sanctuary, the RTI reply revealed construction of 10 tourist resorts in Humbarli, Gokul Turf Helwak and Torni villages with one owned by the state tourism department and another, Wind Chalet, which TEHELKA found, is owned by NCP MLA Vikram Seha Patankar.
Khamkar, who is a member of the Karad tehsil-based NGO Creative Nature Friends, filed complaints in the Bombay High Court in August 2010 and the Central Empowered Committee (CEC) that offers recommendations to the Supreme Court on forest-related issues in October 2010. The CEC members who visited the site sought halt on the construction of an earthen dam. While following the HC directions, Koyna’s assistant conservator of forest dispatched eviction notices to owners of the windmills on 20 November with a two-month deadline. But it was stayed by the same court when New Delhi-based Indian Wind Energy Association (IWEA) filed an application stating that “owners of the windmills had taken all the required permissions”.
The IWEA said the government “neither warned nor objected” to the land sale. The court directed the Wildlife Department to hear the windmill owners before taking a decision. In its letter to the chief secretary, the IWEA said the district collector’s report had “expressly stated” that the villages of Gojegaon, Aral and Kusawade are to be excluded from the sanctuary area where windmills were to be installed.
The IWEA’s claim appears true at least in the following case. Documents available with TEHELKA show how revenue officials didn’t mention that the land is reserved for sanctuary/forest and instead issued it to Dhariwal Tobacco as ‘non-agricultural land’. Khamkar feels the companies were hoodwinked by the government agencies into purchasing land inside the sanctuary without any objection to their activities.
Satara Collector N Ramaswami told TEHELKA that he can’t speak on the issue. Forest Conservator of Kolhapur division and officer in-charge of Koyna sanctuary, Mohan Karnat declined to speak. The Forest Department has long held the view that land deals are the cause of “ignorance among the staff about the sanctuary’s boundaries”. However, RTI revelations show that it knew about the violations.
The Wildlife Department has registered an offence (No. 6/2001-2002 on 15 February 2002) against 159 windmills. The inquiry is still going on while offences would be registered against the remaining 56 windmills and 10 resorts after verification. It was also revealed that on 2 December 2004, when the road was being constructed, the Forest Conservator in Kolhapur wrote to the executive engineer of PMGSY cell Satara district (Jr No./805/2004) informing him about the prohibition.
THE LUST for land stems from the Sahyadri region’s rich biodiversity. And to pull more tourists, the state government has finalised the Rs 678 crore New Mahabaleshwar hill station project near Koyna in 2004 spread over 14 villages. As many as 70 percent of the land deals in Patan tehsil took place in that year alone. Many locals believe that film stars have purchased land in Humbarli and Torni villages. However, TEHELKA could not verify this claim.
Within and outside the sanctuary, allegedly bogus land deals are rife. Advocate Sambhajirao Mohite represented two brothers of Nevi Kashni village in 2008 whose share of property was sold to Suzlon by their three siblings. “Since my clients had not agreed to the sale, their brothers along with some agents brought some strangers who appeared before the company officials as the land owners. Suzlon didn’t confirm their credentials either. The result was my clients’ thumb impressions were forged and the sale wrapped up,” he says. “Out-of-court settlement takes place in most cases. But a majority of villagers rarely choose arbitration to solve issues.”
In its email response to TEHELKA, Suzlon said, “We are confident that all land deals have been conducted as per law and in the event of disputes we have clear processes for resolution and are committed to working with all parties to resolve them. The region in which the windmills are built had been specifically excluded by the subdivisional officer’s report in 1998. The chief secretary has upheld the exclusions.”
But final approval, according to the CEC, has to come from the apex court. “The discretion to exclude or delete areas from sanctuaries lies not with the state government but with the SC. Before that, development activities can’t take place inside,” says CEC member MK Jiwrajka.
In its 14 February 2000 order, the court has prohibited any non-forest or construction activity in protected forest areas.
While the matter is sub judice, the exclusion, the state argues, is necessary to pave way for smooth production of almost 140 MWpower to the state grid, and benefit villagers who had forgone their lands for setting up windmills. However, conservationists say it’s not the windmill owners but the state government that has flouted the apex court’s orders by allowing construction inside the sanctuary. “Besides, deletion would mean 24 percent of forest space shrinkage for the tiger, which is already battling for survival in the Western Ghats,” says Rohan Bhate, a naturalist.
In Pune district, another windmill project located in Kude Budruk and Kharpud villages of Khed tehsil close to the Bhimashankar Wildlife Sanctuary has raised objections. Already under the scanner of the Ministry of Environment and Forests (MoEF), the Andhra Lake Wind Power Project, promoted by Enercon India, is facing allegations of environmental violations.
GREEN ACTIVISTS Atul Kale and his father Dattatraya Kondaji Kale have filed PILs against Enercon in the HC alleging “damage to the environment while installing windmill turbines and approach roads”.
Enercon has been allowed to chop 26,615 trees but activists say more than 3 lakh trees have been cut to build a 20-km road in the forests to reach the windmill site. After the senior Kale moved the Bombay HC in December 2010, the company was asked to stop cutting trees in the region. The stay was, however, lifted soon.
“The Rs 772 crore project in which 442 windmills will be erected has seen cutting of more trees than permitted. Enercon was also not supposed to carry out blasting. But it has violated both norms,” says Atul.
Enercon’s 113 MW windmill project is spread over 194.66 hectares of reserved forest land and is the biggest in the ecosensitive Khed-Maval forest belt.
During a visit to the area, TEHELKA saw partially destroyed forest land due to construction of roads to the windmill site. Huge metal parts of windmills have been left unattended in private fields at many places and villagers say the debris is a threat to farmlands as it can come down crashing from the slopes in a landslide.
Before the windmills were erected, villagers had expected 2-3 hours of extra electricity. “Leave aside lighting our homes, we wanted a power connection in the village temple. But it was denied,” says former sarpanch Dhondu Mhatarba Sutar. When the villagers resisted the project, false cases were slapped against them, he says.
‘This means 24 percent of forest space shrinkage for the tiger, which is already battling for survival,’ says Rohan Bhate, a naturalist
Enercon was supposed to carry out development work in affected villages, but the firm, according to Sutar, hasn’t done anything so far. Villagers say Enercon offered development work instead of electricity. “But when we handed over to them a list of development works worth Rs 40 lakh, they backtracked. We protested. Two months later, company officials accused my brother Dilip of demanding a Rs 40 lakh bribe. They filed a complaint to silence all villagers,” alleges Vijay Medge, who runs a provision store in Kude Budruk.
“Sanjeev Inamdar, the official in charge, is on leave,” an operator at Enercon office in Pune told TEHELKA. The official’s cell number wasn’t disclosed. But recently, talking to the media, Enercon Vice-President UB Reddy refuted all accusations. “The project being executed by our company at Khed-Maval belt in Pune district has all necessary approvals and sanctions. There are no violations,” he had said.
Activists also object to the clearance the project got. An RTI document that Kale has accessed says a letter written by the Chakan Range Forest Officer had opposed it, claiming that the “forest and wildlife in the area will be affected”. “But this letter was never considered and the go-ahead signal was given by AK Sinha, Chief Conservator of Forests, Pune,” he says.
While the case is in Bombay High Court, the MOEF has constituted the Western Ghat Expert Ecology Panel (WGEEP) to study if the company has damaged the environment while installing windmills. WGEEP chief Madhav Gadgil says the report was submitted to the ministry on 30 August and it will be premature to speak about it. “But certainly we have found some issues that are raised in the report,” he says.
Baba Umar is Correspondent with Tehelka.