Kachchh windmills encroach on unique thorn forest and local wildlife

Sangnara, a village in Gujarat’s Kachchh district, puts up a solitary fight to save its forest against wind farms that have mushroomed all over the region in the last 15 years.

A wind farm worker stands at the base of a turbine in Kutch district, Gujarat, India. Image: Wind Denmark, CC BY-SA 3.0, via Flickr.

Chana Rana Rabari picks up a wooden staff as he enters the forest. He requires it to balance while crossing the undulating terrain and thorny vegetation in the jungle.

“This is khair (Capparis decidua). Its gum is eaten for strengthening bones. It sells for 400 rupees per kilogram,” he says, plucking a golden globule from the bark of a tree. He goes on to point out guggal (Commiphora wightii), bor (Zizyphus mauritiana) and khakra (Bombax ceiba) trees, used as raisin, fruit and for Ayurvedic medicine.

Then, Rabari, who is in his 50s, leads us to a porcupine hole and a banyan grove where peacocks roost. The quiet of the banyan grove is only broken by the consistent whirring of a windmill overheard.

Rabari’s or Chanabhai’s (as he is known) livelihood as a maldhari (pastoralist) has made him an amateur botanist who knows the qualities of each grass, shrub and tree in this forest in Gujarat’s Kachchh district.

According to the Forest Survey of India (FSI), this is one of the last remaining tropical thorn forests in the country. Sangnara, his village in the district’s Nakhatrana block, is waging a lone battle to save the forest and its flagship species, the peacock, from a ‘green’ source of energy – windmills.

“There is only meetha jhad (useful trees) here. But the government says it’s all gando bawal (Prosopis juliflora) and is giving it away to companies to install windmills,” Lakshmi Patel, a resident of Sangnara, had tears in her eyes while sharing the story of the forest with Mongabay-India.

We saw the reckless tree cutting and flattening of hillocks, not just for the mill but also for transportation and transmission lines.

Shankarlal Patel, village head, Sangnara

Even as the Gujarat government is promoting renewable energy to tackle climate change, people and the environment in Kachchh’s sensitive landscape are being left behind in the wind energy industry’s business-as-usual approach. Kachchh, with an area of 45,674 square kilometres, is the largest district in India. It has three different ecologies – coastal area, hilly ridge and desert. The state has 1,600 kms of coastline, the longest in India.

According to an assessment by the National Institute of Wind Energy (NIWE), Gujarat has the maximum wind energy potential in India with a capacity to produce 22.75 per cent of the country’s wind energy. As of February 2022, out of the total national installed wind capacity of 40,129 megawatts (MW), Gujarat has an  installed capacity of 8,900 MW, and is second only to Tamil Nadu. The Solar Energy Corporation of India, which oversees the implementation of renewable energy projects in the country, has wind energy projects worth 6,095 MW in Kachchh district alone.

The initial windmills in Kachchh came along the coastal areas from Surajbari to Mandvi but are expanding inland now and the reason for that is soil bearing capacity (SBC). The hard rock strata of Kachchh’s hilly ridge mean a higher SBC. Good SBC reduces the foundation cost and also the maintenance cost that is high in coastal areas due to saline winds.

“People welcomed the windmills initially but slowly realised the impact on local ecology, water sources and interpersonal relations in the village,” said Shankarlal Patel, the Sarpanch (village head) of Sangnara. In 2019, Sangnara went to the National Green Tribunal (NGT) demanding that all the windmill projects planned within the village boundary be scrapped.

How windmills trickled in Sangnara

With a population of about 1,400, Sangnara depends mainly on agriculture and pastoralism for livelihood besides selling forest produce like gum and guggal pods. The official pastureland (gauchar) of the village is about 486 acres (197 hectares) that seamlessly merges into the thorn forest of about 800 hectares.

According to a report by the Principal Chief Conservator of Forests of Gujarat (PCCF), the forest has 28 plant species and seven animal species including chinkara, desert cat, hyena, fox, nilgai, spiny-tailed lizard and desert monitor.

But due to a historical mistake, this forest is designated as ‘wasteland’ in the state’s revenue records. In 1996, as part of the T.N. Godavarman Thirumulpad case, the Supreme Court directed states to determine parameters for identifying forests according to the dictionary meaning, irrespective of who owned the area and declare them deemed forests.

The Gujarat government could not, however, complete the exercise. “No such area was identified back then in Kachchh possibly because the forest wasn’t dense enough,” Tushar Patel, Deputy Conservator of Forests (DCF), Kachchh West division, under whom Nakhatrana falls, told Mongabay-India.

Had it been declared a deemed forest, any activity would have been allowed only after permission from the central government for diversion of land for non-forest purposes and payment of net present value, says the NGT petition.

In 2015, Suzlon was the first company to get approval for installing 11 windmills in Sangnara. They installed seven mills by 2017 and laid the foundation for one. Each mill is allotted one hectare of land along with the right of way for transporting mill machinery and transmission lines.

“Initially, it was alright. But then, we saw the reckless tree cutting and flattening of hillocks, not just for the mill but also for transportation and transmission lines,” said Shankarlal Patel. “The company did not even insulate the wires as required of them in the permission letter given by the collector and that is where peacocks are getting electrocuted now,” he said.

The villagers were in for more shocks. By 2019, a total of 29 more mills by three companies including Adani, Torrent Power and Green Infra were approved in Sangnara. Of this, 10 under Torrent Power and seven under Adani Green Energy Ltd have not yet begun work but Green Infra, which was allotted 12 mills, began foundation work on four of them.

“They chopped more than 500 trees without informing anybody despite the district collector’s order requiring them to seek permission before felling any tree,” alleged Shankarlal Patel. The villagers complained to the mamlatdar (block revenue officer) and the company was subsequently asked to pay a fine of Rs. 304,950. The PCCF report says more than 20,000 trees would need to be cut from Sangnara’s forest if the rest of the mills come up as planned.

The foundation of one windmill of Suzlon was left unfinished. “They made this foundation in 2016 but did not come back for two years. Meanwhile, we found that this point is inside our gauchar as per the map prepared in 1984. In 2018, the company came back saying that as per the new map, the point is outside the gauchar. Since then, the village has not allowed any machinery inside,” Ambalal Patel, a resident of Sangnara, told Mongabay-India.

“The process is called promulgation as per which new technology was used to draw the map. This resulted in slight variation in the boundary. As per the new revenue map, the windmill point is not inside the gauchar,” Mehul Barasara, deputy collector, Nakhatrana, told Mongabay-India. Ambalal Patel, however, counters that how could promulgation happen only for Sangnara when it has not happened for nearby villages.

Sangnara depends mainly on agriculture and pastoralism

A common sight on the highway from Bhuj to Nakhatrana – a distance of 50 kilometres – is pomegranate trees in the forefront and windmills in the background. Unlike the rest of Kachchh, which depends on the Narmada river canals for water supply, Nakhatrana has better groundwater reserves and thus, flourishing horticulture. The farmers grow crops like pomegranate, mango, muskmelon and groundnut besides cotton and castor.

“Both pomegranate and mango require honey bee for pollination in the flowering season. In the last five years, honey bee population has gone down drastically. People are having to rent bee boxes at the rate of Rs. 2,500 a month. Earlier, the bees came from the forest. The noise from the mills and the reduced jungle has forced them to go away,” Dhaval Patel, a farmer, told Mongabay-India.

The village has a tradition of spreading grains for birds near a temple inside the gauchar. “Birds like sparrows, egrets, a variety of parrots and peafowls have a good population here,” said Jayanti Patel, a farmer. But the constant whirring from windmills is driving away birds, he said. “Even cattle get scared of the noise. Cases of animals dying due to electric shock during the monsoon have gone up,” Maghi Ben, another maldhari, shared with Mongabay-India.

Noise pollution from the windmills is a problem for humans as well. Ghodjiper, the maldhari locality of Sangnara, has a windmill on either side of the road. Children in a primary school next to one of the mills complained of constant buzzing sound in the ear, a symptom of tinnitus.

“The noise is especially disturbing during the quiet of the night and in winters. Also, the shadow of the rotating mill falls in houses on full moon nights, causing headache and irritability due to disturbed sleep,” Hansa Rabari, a resident of Ghodjiper, complained to Mongabay-India while pointing to the windmill.

In August 2021, Sangnara village, along with several non-governmental organisations in Kachchh, held a protest at Suzlon’s unfinished windmill. Green Infra and Suzlon have since decided to give up construction on their remaining sites. “We haven’t yet heard anything from Adani and Torrent on their 17 points though,” shared Shankarlal Patel.

In August 2021, Green Infra initiated work for a 2.5 km long transmission line that would cross Sangnara. “We told them that they could take it underground or at least insulate it but they refused to do so,” said Shankarlal Patel while emphasising that their village stands united against the mills.

Peacocks electrocuted due to transmission wires

Peacock deaths due to electrocution from the windmills’ transmission lines have made headlines in Kachchh in the last three years. In the last five months in Sangnara, the post-mortem of four peacocks has confirmed death due to electrocution.

“We don’t even know how many are dying because jackals or dogs eat away the bodies. Only when a maldhari in the forest sees one and calls the Sarpanch that we get to know about it,” Kaiyan Rabari from Sangnara complained to Mongabay-India.

“The presence of peacock is a sign of a forest’s good health. It is the top species of the thorn forest ecosystem. By preying on caterpillars and pests, peacocks also support agriculture. If there are no peacocks, pesticide use in the fields is bound to go up,” Navin Bapat, a naturalist from Bhuj, Kachchh’s district capital, told Mongabay-India.

About 15 kilometres from Sangnara is Roha village which made news two years ago when 50 peacocks died of electrocution in a short period of time.

The district administration declared the area within a two-kilometre radius of the village as ‘protected’. A transmission line of two km length was put underground and nets put on poles where the birds perch. “When peacock deaths continued despite this, they insulated the wires for a further two kilometres,” said Pushpendra Sinh Jadeja, resident of Roha village.

Peacock is a social animal and stays near the villages, also because there is food available there, said DCF Tushar Patel.

“80 per cent of the peacock deaths happen within the two-km radius of the village. The incidences of electrocution have gone up in the last 3-4 years only because transmission lines have increased in this period. In my opinion, wires should not be allowed in this zone,” he said. Tushar Patel is also trying to study the impact of windmills on the breeding pattern of birds like owls whose sound frequency does not match that of the windmill noise.

When the companies seek permission to install windmills from the collector, an opinion from the forest department is sought as part of the procedure.

“Even if the area is not under the forest department, we tell them to install bird guards, spikes, reflectors and even insulate wires in case needed. We even tell them that there should be a gap of at least 2.5 metres between two cables so that even if birds sit on it, no earthing happens. But the final implementation of these conditions rests with the collector,” Patel told Mongabay India.

Peacock being a Schedule-I bird (endangered species) under the Wildlife Protection Act, 1972, the forest department has also booked cases of negligence against companies. However, almost all the cases are pending.

The forest department has asked the wind energy companies to underground or insulate wires and poles in cases like Roha but it is an expensive and technically challenging task, said an engineer of Suzlon on condition of anonymity. The wires are usually insulated with plastic sleeves that cost Rs. 600-700 per metre, which means about Rs. 600,000 per kilometre.

“A substation is usually 15-20 kms away and then there are at least three wires per mill. Depending on the ground situation, the cost can be in crores. Putting them underground has its own cost of digging and maintenance. During monsoon, that can be dangerous too,” he said.

“If one goes to Nirona (another village in Nakhatrana), he would only see wires in the sky instead of stars. Each company has a separate line,” Surendra Sinh Jadeja, an environmental activist in Bhuj, told Mongabay-India. Even if the site of the windmill is revenue wasteland, the transmission lines cross over the gauchar, farmland, forest and even residential areas.

Thanks to the wires, selling land has also become a problem. “With wires passing overhead, land rates have come down. Also, if we want to change the land use of our agricultural parcel, we will have to take permission from the company because of these wires,” said Rauji Patel, another resident.

The thorn forest

Tropical thorn forest falls in Eco-class IV of the six ecological classes as per a 2008 report by Kanchan Chopra submitted to the SC in the T.N. Godavarman Thirumulpad case. “Kachchh has the largest thorn forest in the country, only if they let it be. The native species that have survived here for thousands of years are not even being seen by the Government while giving it away for projects. Once flattened, no amount of CSR (Corporate Social Responsibility) can bring this forest back,” Pankaj Joshi, a researcher working on the restoration of natural ecosystems, told Mongabay India.

“Clearing the thorn forest poses a challenge to the water table underneath these hills,” said Siddhartha Dabi, a researcher at the University of Exeter who is working on the ecological and social impacts of wind energy in Kachchh.

“We are looking at marginalised ecology here, not a typical forest like the Western Ghats. It does not get the visibility it deserves due to its dry grass, rocks and thorny trees. But this is the native ecology of this region, even though it does not have the so-called timber value,” he said.

About 80 per cent of the land in Kachchh is under the revenue department. According to Dabi, livestock in Kachchh is thrice that of the human population.

“We should look at land use from this perspective. It is not a wasteland just because it is defined so. Boundaries between a gauchar and wasteland are fluid as ecology is the same. The gauchar in Nakhatrana is much less in proportion to the number of animals so people depend on this land,” he said.

Transporting a windmill blade of 70 metres requires a clear path of 100 metres on a circular path and at least 15 metres on a straight road, said DCF Patel.

“The makeshift roads that are built till the windmill point end up clearing native grasses, leading to the change in cattle’s movement and also unnatural drainage since they have been levelled. The truck tyres bring in new seeds thus changing the environment for the grass to grow back. These may seem small issues but a maldhari understands the impact,” said Dabi.

This story was published with permission from Mongabay.com.

Like this content? Join our growing community.

Your support helps to strengthen independent journalism, which is critically needed to guide business and policy development for positive impact. Unlock unlimited access to our content and members-only perks.

Most popular

Featured Events

Publish your event
leaf background pattern

Transforming Innovation for Sustainability Join the Ecosystem →