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Green panel nod for Kutch wind power project despite member’s objection

LiveMint logoLiveMint 19-07-2017 Mayank Aggarwal

New Delhi: An expert forest panel of the Union environment ministry has recommended green nod to a wind power project in Kutch area of Gujarat despite the objection of one of the panel members who warned that the project could pose risk to migratory birds that frequent the area in winters, and bats.

The decision by the forest advisory committee (FAC) of the environment ministry came in its latest meeting on 15 June the minutes of which were reviewed by Mint. The forest panel was considering a proposal seeking diversion of 297.38 hectares of forest land in Kutch district for setting up a 400 megawatt (MW) wind power project.

The estimated cost of the project is Rs1,859 crore and a total of 17,494 trees are proposed to be felled. But a site inspection report by environment ministry’s regional office in Bhopal said the trees to be removed are along the road network that will connect the proposed wind mills and, therefore, the effect of their removal will be insignificant compared to a situation where trees are removed from a concentrated area.

FAC, meanwhile, took note of the rapid bird and bats risk assessment study conducted to assess risk to birds and bats in the area due to the project.

According to the study, the project site does not fall within any protected area or important bird area, and is not even in close proximity of any internationally-known sites for birds, bats or any other biodiversity.

The study also stressed that the project is likely to pose low threat to resident and migratory bird populations as it maintains a safe distance from water bodies, and the area is not known for higher bird diversity and density. It said that the project activities poses low threat to bats as only one species of fruit bat and two species of insectivorous bats are reported to inhabit the project site.

The study even said that the project will not pose any population level threats to any of the common bats species reported to be living in the project area. Instead, it said that careful construction and operation activities with mitigation measures and continuous monitoring would reduce the chances of bird and bat mortalities to a great extent.

However, an expert member of FAC, Deepak Apte, who was tasked by the panel in December 2016 to examine the rapid bird and bats risk assessment study raised red flags and highlighted shortcomings in the risk assessment study.

Apte, in his analysis of the study which was submitted to FAC in March 2017, held that the report appears to be “overtly pro to the proposed windmill, instead of providing a balanced view of the pros and cons of the project on birds and bats”.

He stated that the study period covers approximately 10 months, but the crucial months of October to November, when migratory birds arrive in this region of Gujarat in large numbers, are missing. He also observed that a claim that the project poses no threat to bats does not carry weight. “Moreover, threat to even one or two species is also a threat and can be significant,” he added.

Apte further said that terms (used in risk assessment study) like “or even close proximity” and “safe distance” may be applicable for mammals or even forest bird species that are largely sedentary, but otherwise, birds (and especially migratory species) with their power of flight travel long distances, and thus, terms like “close proximity” and “safe distance” from wildlife refuges (viz., Charidhan Conservation Reserve at 10km distance, Kachchh Desert Sanctuary at 17km and Naryan Sarovar Sanctuary at 48 km) make little sense to birds.

“Of the three sites mentioned, two of these are major wintering sites for migratory water birds, and Charidhan supports two lakh waterbirds annually. As for bats, fruit-eating bats tend to daily travel long-distances in search of food resources, which would be expected to be of longer distances in this semi-arid landscape,” he observed.

Apte warned that migratory birds will face threat from the project.

“The Kachchh region is the chief entry and exit route for migratory water birds into the Indian subcontinent on their onward journey to the rest of the subcontinent during the migratory season. During this study, a total of 41 species of water birds, comprising resident and migratory species, were recorded, which is significant. Hence, migratory birds travelling through this region will face threats from the maze of windmills that is proposed to be established,” he said.

“And more so since an important bird area, Chharidhan, is only 10 km from this site. A more intensive study, ideally aided with bird banding operations, needs to be taken up to assess the migratory movement of water birds through this area so as to better evaluate the impact of the windmills on water birds, only after which sanction of permission for the project is given,” Apte suggested to FAC in its analysis.

FAC, however, ignored concerns raised by Apte and recommended forest clearance for the project. Once FAC recommends or rejects the proposal, the final clearance is granted by the Union environment ministry, which rarely overturns the decision of the expert panel.

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