Punaji Thubal, a farmer in Kharpud village, about 80 km from Pune, points at a mass of gravel that has entered his paddy field. He says it came from a road laid uphill to transport parts of a series of windmills. Some of these are being set up 3.5 km from the boundary of Bhimashankar Wildlife Sanctuary, home to the Indian giant squirrel, or shekru, state animal of Maharashtra.
Destruction of the shekru’s habitat is among the concerns expressed by environmentalists, besides the impact on other species and soil and water resources. The Rs 770-crore, 113-MW Andhra Lake Wind Power Project, spanning 196 hectares and scattered across 14 villages in Khed and Maval, has come under scrutiny of the Western Ghat Expert Ecology Panel. The project is being undertaken by Indo-German venture Enercon India Pvt Ltd.
Following an RTI query, local activists have found that a range forest officer, D B Bhalerao, had filed a report that the project would affect the green cover and wildlife. But then chief conservator of forests, Pune A K Sinha filed a report that the squirrel’s habitat would be unaffected.
Bhalerao’s report on December 28, 2008, said, “Though the windmills are going to be set up in only 87 hectares of the total 3,629 hectares under the villages, the roads for transporting the parts will affect the ecosystem. One cannot deny the possibility of destruction of habitat of mammals, reptiles, insects and birds.”
Documents received from the forest department show that Sinha’s report, dated November 19, 2009, said, “This is not likely to affect the (protected area) as the key species of the Bhimashankar Wildlife Sanctuary is the giant squirrel, which is restricted to the sanctuary only.”
But Bhalerao, now transferred to Chakan forest range, cites sightings of the animal near the project area. “As per records, forest department employees have spotted four to five shekrus in Kharput, Kude and Wandre… Nests too have been seen,” he told The Indian Express.
The forest department’s census report of 2008 counted three specimens in the small area in Kharpud. The species is listed as “near threatened”.
Environmentalist Madhav Gadgil, WGEEP head and a member of the National Advisory Committee, said, “A researcher from IISc-Bangalore, Renee Borges, did an extensive study on giant squirrels and recorded its presence in the forest that is now being destroyed for the project. I myself have spotted the shekru and its nests in the area where work is on,”
IISc’s Borges had filed a report to the MoEF, saying the project “has been supposedly sanctioned based on information provided by the forest department that there is no significant wildlife including giant squirrels here. However, in the visit to Wandre and Kharpud, where windmills have already been erected, [Borges] showed the department nests of giant squirrels along the new roads that have been constructed. This is clear indication that giant squirrels were present in these forests before the project was commenced. These forests have now been destroyed.”
Father-son activists Dattatray and Atul Kale have been filing RTI applications with various government offices since 2009 to find out how the project got Central sanction last December. Atul Kale says Enercon got permission to cut 26,000 trees, “but in reality not less than 2 lakh trees have been cut for the construction of 72-km approach roads on the hills. We went to the Bombay High Court in December 2010 and the court asked them to stop. But later the company approached the Nagpur Bench and the forest department said they did not have any objection to the tree cutting.”
When The Indian Express contacted Enercon about alleged excessive felling, a manager, Rahul Mirge, said, “This is all wrong.” He did not respond to later calls.
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