Photo: Saur Energy International

Can India’s wind energy plans take flight without a fight?

The expansive plans for wind energy through large power projects are seen as a progressive step, but impacted locals are fighting to avoid becoming collateral damage

India is currently pursuing a target of 60 GW of wind energy by the end of 2022. The path to achieving this? Large homogenous power projects spread over hundreds of hectares, dotted with towering wind turbines all united in the single purpose of harnessing the energy of the wind. 

India’s prime minister Narendra Modi laid the foundation for one such project in Kutch, Gujarat in December last year. The 30,000 megawatt capacity hybrid park, which is being touted as the world’s largest renewable energy park, will be spread across 72,000 hectares of wasteland. Wind energy will be a big part of this park. It was during the same event that Kutch was also designated as an important wind energy exploitation zone, with thousands of windmills finding a home here over the years. 

The expansive plans for wind energy through large power projects are largely seen as a progressive step in the transition to low-carbon development. The sentiment of progress though is far from unanimous.

Progress or threat?

In Sangnara village in Kutch, large wind energy projects are seen not as the future, but as a potent existential threat. Sangnara locals have been up in arms against wind energy companies that have marched into the region. 

Out of 40 windmills to be set up by four companies—Suzlon Gujarat Wind Park Limited, Adani Green Energy (MP) Limited, Green Infra Wind Energy Limited and Torrent Power Limited—seven have already been erected by Suzlon in the officially recognised forest area outlining this village since 2015-16. Now, villagers are preventing further progression of the rest of the projects. 

Shankar Lal Gopal Patel, a local resident, told CarbonCopy, “The Suzlon company employees kept us in the dark about the detrimental impact of the project. They initially won our trust with sweet talk and also gave around Rs6 lakh for a cow shelter home in the village. But later, we were shaken when they cleared a major part of our forest and flattened the  hillock.” 

The tussle, which was triggered by the company’s activities, intensified in August this year, when the Suzlon employees came to the adjoining forest, after almost two years of COVID-19-related restrictions, to resume work related to further installations.  

Pradhan of the village, Manjula Ben, told CarbonCopy, “People from the company come equipped with police force, but we are not relenting. Whenever they slip into the forest area, we leave our work and rush to the spot to stop them. We sat several times in protest. Our lives have been disturbed a lot.” 

Locals from Sangnara village in Kutch protesting against the windmills coming up in the region’s forest area.

Another local, Nitin Limbani, expressed concern over survival of the pastoral community in the village, which maintains a stock of around 1,000 camels and other animals, who depend on a section of pasture land that has been diverted for wind projects.

When the village did not get favourable responses from the local MLA, MP and administration, they approached the National Green Tribunal (NGT). The NGT had accepted their case last year. The petition was filed by Sangnara resident Shankarlal Gopalbhai Patel on January 29, 2020, citing the damage caused to the flora, fauna and ecology of the Kutch region due to alleged rampant illegal felling of trees for construction of wind farms by Suzlon Gujarat Wind Park Limited  and other wind energy companies. This was followed by the NGT directing the Head of Forest Force (HoFF) in Gujarat to conduct an inspection of the area to verify aspects and submit a report. 

According to the report submitted by DK Sharma, the HoFF in Gujarat, “No permission has been taken by the Suzlon Gujarat Wind Park Ltd company for felling of trees on the area used for erection of wind mills, construction of approach roads and laying of electricity transmission lines. No action has been taken against the company for the act. During site inspection, it was observed that on the location where the windmill has been constructed, a portion of the hillock has been cut and leveled.”

Speaking to CarbonCopy, Sharma said, “The area allocated to various companies on lease is rich with good natural tree cover and it also supports important fauna. The windmill locations need to be connected with existing roads through the construction of new approach roads for carrying material to the site and later for maintenance purposes. This involves clearing of vegetation and use of additional area. However, no such permission has been sought by the wind energy companies.”

He further added that lines need to be laid to transmit electricity generated from each Wind Turbine Generator (WTG) to the grid. Looking at the scattered location of 40 WTGs in the area, clearing that location to lay these lines seems inevitable. “It is felt that in such projects, a comprehensive proposal covering all the aspects, such as total area requirement for various components, number of trees to be removed, etc, should be submitted by the project proponents and all these factors need to be taken into consideration while approving the project/ allotting land on lease for the projects,” Sharma said. 

Replying to queries on the matter by CarbonCopy, a Suzlon representative said, “Being a leader of wind energy in India, Suzlon, is deeply committed to the environment, sustainability and to all the communities that we work in for over two decades. However, since the matter is subjudice before the Hon’ble National Green Tribunal(NGT), Pune Bench, India, we are not in a position to comment further on this issue. We are complying with the directions of Hon’ble NGT in the matter.”

The matter has been deferred to November 29 for now.

Local villagers in various states incensed over damage to their natural resources

The Sangnara forest is part of the sacred grove that the five villages consider as their places of worship. This is a 500 sqkm virgin Tropical Thorn Forest with rich diversity of threatened flora and fauna, including chinkara, wolf, caracal, ratel, hyena, desert cat, Indian fox, spiny tailed lizard, desert monitor, vultures, and many more. The communities have maintained and protected this forest for many generations. The villagers claim that many wildlife species deserted the forest due to damage and disturbance caused by the project.

People in various villages across Kutch are agitating against such installations. Surender Sinh, a local activist of village Roha in Kutch district, said, “Our region used to thrive with a lot of bird diversity, especially peacocks. Now, almost every day, we find them lying dead due to electrocution with the newly set up high transmission wires after the wind energy operation started.” The Great Indian Bustard (GIB) is another vulnerable species that has been crashing into these power lines. The Supreme Court recently intervened and ordered power companies to place their overhead power lines underground in Rajasthan and Kutch to save the GIB from going extinct.  

About 80% of India’s renewable energy (RE) capacity is confined to seven states, which account for 92% of the country’s total installed wind energy capacity. These seven states are—Rajasthan, Gujarat, Maharashtra, Telangana, Karnataka, Andhra Pradesh and Tamil Nadu.

Vinuta Gopal, CEO of environmental organisation ASAR, said, “There are different reasons for people to oppose wind energy projects in various states of the country. For instance, people in Tamil Nadu resent them because they believe that windmills drastically reduce the yield of bananas. In Maharashtra, illegal tree cutting and blasting for the Andhra Lake  Wind Power project (113 MW)  earned the wrath of local people and conservationists of the Western ghats.”

Detrimental impact on biodiversity

Senior researcher at ASAR, Priya Pillai, agreed that India’s energy transition from fossil fuels to renewable energy is critical to tackling the climate crisis, but she emphasised that  the environmental and social implications of India’s massive RE expansion plans have not been studied well. “RE comes with a “green” and “sustainable” tag, but the impacts of large-scale RE projects are not well-documented. These projects do not cause carbon emission, but it does not mean they also do not harm the environment in any other way.”

Between 2014 and 2018, 612.51 hectares of forest land was diverted for wind power projects in India. Chandra Bhushan, founder of iFOREST, in his study, Green Norms For Wind Power, which focused on the loss of biodiversity due to wind energy projects, remarked, “Building roads for wind energy projects in forests can cause linear fragmentation, hindering migration and search for food for wild animals. Road building in hilly areas also causes erosion. Loss of nutrient-rich topsoil makes it hard for new plant-life to come up on the hillside. Erosion can, in turn, lead to silt going into streams and silting up water tanks, which feed agriculture.”

He further wrote that rights of tribal communities living in forest areas are protected by The Forest Rights Act, 2006 . The Act recognises the rights of tribals over forests for their livelihood. As far as wind power is concerned, there have been allegations that wind power developers have flouted the Act.

According to Bhushan, since wind power is categorised as “green” by a majority of the state pollution control boards, projects under this category are rarely scrutinised— unless complaints are lodged against them. They are given Consent to Establish (often called ‘No Objection Certificate’) and Consent to Operate for five years. Sustainable development research organization Manthan Adhyayan Kendra researcher Shripad Dharmaadhikari expanded on the matter, “There is no denying the fact wind and solar are less disruptive than coal and hydropower and it does not mean it has zero impact. These RE projects which are exempted from Environment Impact Assessment  (EIA)process must be brought under the purview of  EIA 2006  notification.