Approval for two mini-hydel power projects granted based on ‘erroneous’ reports

Three officers of the Department of Forests are expected to face disciplinary action for filing erroneous reports, allegedly to favour a private agency, in connection with setting up two mini-hydel power projects in the forests of Sakleshpur taluk.

The State Cabinet has given its consent for disciplinary action against K.H. Nagaraj and G.V. Rangarao, both Chief Conservator of Forests, and R.N. Lakshman, Deputy Conservator of Forests (DCF) in Hassan, as recommended by the Karnataka Elephant Task Force.

The Cabinet took this decision on June 27. The task force had recommended action against these officers, saying that they “undermined laws and regulatory processes established to ensure ecologically responsible development”. The officers gave erroneous, contradictory reports on the flora and fauna in the forestland of Kaginahare and Kenchanakumari reserve forests in the taluk, with respect to proposals to set up mini-hydel power projects by Maruthi Powergen India Pvt. Ltd.

Dipak Sarmah, Principal Chief Conservator of Forests, told The Hindu that the department had recommended disciplinary action against the officers. “The State Cabinet also took note of this development. Further procedures have to be handled by the Department of Personnel and Administrative Reforms (DPAR),” he said.

Land diversion

The Ministry of Environment and Forests (MoEF) and the State government gave approval for diversion of 4.18 hectares of land for the projects based on an erroneous proposal submitted by Mr. Nagaraj, the then DCF of Hassan, in 2008. The officer had stated that the area was not vulnerable for erosion, did not form part of any national park or wildlife sanctuary and there were no rare, endangered or unique species of flora and fauna. Based on this report, the projects were sanctioned in a highly eco-sensitive zone of the Western Ghats. (However, another proposal submitted by his successor gave a completely different report). At present, Mr. Nagaraj is Chief Conservator of Forests in Dry Land Development Board.

The Western Ghats Environment Forum, a group of environmentalists, moved the Karnataka High Court appealing for withdrawal of the approval granted to the private company. According to the court’s order a Central team visited the area and reported to the court that the two power projects proposed by the private agency should be treated as one — this would require the project to go through a much longer procedure and get approval from the MoEF under the Environment (Protection) Act, 1986. The court ordered the State government to submit a fresh proposal to the MoEF for diversion of land. Mr. Lakshman, in his reports filed in response to the court orders, changed his observation on the extent of land required for the projects thrice. The PCCF served a show-cause notice to the DCF for his contradictory reports in March 2013. Besides this, Mr. Lakshman, in his proposal for diversion of land for the projects submitted to the MoEF, had expressed contradictory views on the existence of elephants in the region.

‘Cancel leases’

Considering the violations committed by Maruthi Powergen India Pvt. Ltd. in executing the projects, the PCCF, in July 2012, ordered Mr. Rangarao to cancel the leases in respect of land sanctioned and clear the land within 15 days. The officer, however, delayed taking action and issued an order on cancelling leases only on April 16, 2013.

The government, in its Cabinet note, observed that the officer did not follow the government’s direction. Instead, he delayed taking action so as to allow the company to move court and get a stay on cancellation of leases.

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