Development projects in the ecologically sensitive region of Western Ghats in Maharashtra have been under the green activists' scanner for long. Activists allege that this time the culprit is a seemingly innocent wind power project.

They state that the 113 MW Andhra Lake Wind Power Project, promoted by Indo-German enterprise Enercon India has overlooked environmental considerations. For the project, located at a distance of 3.5 km from the Bhimashankar Wildlife Sanctuary, illegal tree cutting and blasting is going on, posing a danger to the wildlife of the region.

The project, spread over 14 villages of the Khed and Maval talukas, covering an area of 194.66 hectares of reserve forest land and costing Rs. 772 crore has now come under the scrutiny of the Western Ghat Expert Ecology Panel (WGEEP), which will visit the site in the coming week.

Enercon India Ltd. has been given the permission to cut 26,615 trees but activists Atul Kale and Vishwambar Choudhari allege that more than 3 lakh trees have been cut in the region to construct a 20 km long road along the mountains to reach the windmill site. After Kale moved the Bombay High Court in December 2010, the Enercon was asked to stop cutting trees in the region.

A visit to the site on March 31 showed that tree cutting and blasting activities are still being carried out. The logs have been dumped in the adjacent region and are proof that the number is more than what was allowed, Mr. Kale says. However, The Hindu could not independently verify the number of tress cut as claimed by activists.

Blasting is being carried out in the Kharpud region, by contract labourers. They say work has been going on for the last three months, and roads are being built through the mountains. Enercon does not have the permission to carry out blasting in the region, as clarified in a letter by the Pune Collector.

Dr. Choudhari points out: “What is the use of having a green energy project that needs scores of trees to be cut?”

Mr. Kale questions the very basis of how the project got clearance from the government. “No development work is allowed within a 10 km radius of the National park. Then how was this project given clearance,” he asks. Mr. Kale has accessed documents through the Right To Information (RTI) Act, which state that a letter written by the Chakan Range Forest Officer (RFO), under whose jurisdiction the project falls, opposed the project claiming that the forest and wildlife in the area will be severely affected. “This letter was completely ignored by A.K. Sinha, Chief Conservator of Forests, Pune who then gave clearance to the project,” Mr. Kale states. This is supported by the Forest Conservation Act of 1980 and a 2004 order of the Maharashtra Principal Chief Conservator of Forests which state that “areas like national parks and sanctuaries should not be considered for wind energy farms.”

Activists also state that no public hearing was conducted before the project work began.

The project started in March 2010. Till now, 40 of the 142 sanctioned windmills have come up across the region.

Saili Palande Datar of the Pune-based organisation Kalpavriksha states that the region is also home to the endangered Indian Giant Squirrel, known as Shekru. “Because of the tree cutting and blasting the Shekru will lose its habitat. It requires a thick canopy cover, and food availability will also suffer due to lack of the specific plants that the Shekru feeds on,” she says. However, the clearance granted to the Enercon states that the Giant Squirrel is restricted to the Bhimashankar Wildlife Sanctuary alone, a claim that the activists challenge. Ms. Saili also points out the danger posed by the wind turbines to the migratory patterns of birds.

Inspite of the efforts of the activists, no political party has taken cognisance of the issue. Shiv Sena MP Shivaji Adhalrao Patil raised questions about the project in December 2009, before it was granted clearance. He also pointed out that the flora and fauna would be adversely affected. However, he withdrew his protest on December 4 2009, and the project was cleared by the Central government on December 10, 2009. Asked why he withdrew his protest, he says, “I was convinced that the project is not posing a danger. I had protested to the cutting of trees, and the Enercon India Ltd itself wrote to me and stated that they would undertake compensatory afforestation. The rest of the problem should now be tackled by the ruling party.” Mr. Patil refuses to state whether he is convinced that the wildlife will be safeguarded.

This has opened up the floor for a debate on the larger issue of guidelines for non-conventional energy production in the country. Labelled as ‘green energy,' wind power projects are given many concessions such as a 10-year tax holiday, accelerated depreciation, concessional custom duty and most often, the States buy back the power from the companies.

In the ongoing conference called Wind Power India 2011 in Chennai, it was declared that India's wind-energy sector added 2,139 MW of capacity in 2010, growth of about 68 per cent, according to the Global Wind Energy Council's wind-energy outlook report for India.

After activists Mr. Kale and Dr. Choudhari wrote to the Central Expert Committee (CEC), Union Environment Minister Jairam Ramesh directed the WGEEP to inspect the site and issue guidelines.

Madhav Gadgil, noted ecologist and the chairman of the WGEEP is aware of this debate. The site inspection, scheduled on April 14, will clarify the issues to the panel. “The panel will look at the environmental issues and the broader policy issues concerning windmills. The large scale implications of such projects will be studied,” Mr. Gadgil says.