So­lar plant at Samb­har Lake threat­ens ecol­ogy, flamin­goes

A mega so­lar power plant at Samb­har lake may spell doom for its frag­ile ecol­ogy and flamin­goes

Down to Earth - - CONTENTS - ANKUR PALI­WAL Samb­har, Ra­jasthan

The world’s largest pho­to­voltaic ( PV) so­lar power project has stum­bled over an eco­log­i­cal road­block. The Cen­tre plans to set up 4,000 MW ul­tra mega so­lar power project ( UMSPP) in Samb­har Salt Lake at Ra­jasthan. Last year the project re­ceived in- prin­ci­ple ap­pro val of the state govern­ment, then led by Ashok Gehlot who be­longs to the rul­ing Congress party at the Cen­tre. But in Jan­uary, the new­ly­elected chief min­is­ter Va­sund­hara Raje wrote to the Union Min­is­ter of Heavy In­dus­tries Praful Pa­tel ex­press­ing her reser­va­tions about the project on the largest in­land sa­line wet­land in Asia. In­stead of an in­dus­trial project, she said, she would like to de­velop the wet­land as a tourism site.

But on Jan­uary 29, four days af­ter Raje sent her let­ter to Pa­tel, three Union min­istries, in­clud­ing his, and six pub­lic sec­tor un­der­tak­ings signed an MoU to de­velop and op­er­ate the project, which is ex­pected to gen­er­ate 6,000 mil­lion units of elec­tric­ity an­nu­ally for 25 years, and off­set over four mil­lion tonnes of CO a year. It also aims to re­duce the

2 cost of so­lar en­ergy from ` 7- 8 to ` 5 a unit (see ‘Am­bi­tious so­lar plan’ on p20).

The con­cerns of the state govern­ment have, how­ever, alerted the World Bank. The Cen­tre had ap­proached the Bank for loan of US $500 mil­lion for the first phase of the ` 30,000 crore UMSPP. “We can com­mit the amount only af­ter the is­sues are cleared,” a World Bank of­fi­cial told Down To Earth ( DTE).

Con­cerns over vi­o­la­tions

Raje’s con­cerns stem from the fact that the project re­quires PV so­lar pan­els in­stalled across over 9,000 hectares (ha). This will cover about 40 per cent of the lake that spans 24,000 ha. It at­tracts over 70 species of mi­grant birds and is the sec­ond largest breed­ing ground of flamin­goes in In­dia af­ter Rann of Katchch.

Be­cause of such eco­log­i­cal im­por­tance, the sec­tion four of the Wet­lands (Con­ser­va­tion and Man­age­ment) Rules 2010 pro­hibits set­ting up new in­dus­tries and ex­pan­sion of the ex­ist­ing ones on wet­lands. Though a sub- rule un­der the sec­tion al­lows the Cen­tre to per­mit any of the pro­hib­ited ac­tiv­i­ties on the rec- om­men­da­tion of the Cen­tral Wetla nds Con­ser­va­tion Au­tho rity ( CWCA), the author­ity is yet to rece ive project pro­posal. “We can com­ment only af­ter we see the pro­posal,” Bri­jesh Sikka, mem­ber of CWCA, told DTE.

R K Ton­don, man­ag­ing di­rec­tor of Samb­har Salts Limited ( SSL), a PSU that owns the lake and its catch­ment area on a 99-year-lease, be­gin­ning 1961, for salt pro­duc­tion from the state govern­ment, claims that the land given for the project has been ly­ing bar­ren for sev­eral years. Salt ex­trac­tion hap­pens only on 2,400 ha. “A green project is the best way to utilise the sur­plus land with­out harm­ing the wet­land. Be­sides, the lake boundary is yet to be no­ti­fied,” he says. Last year, the state rev­enue depart­ment iden­ti­fied the lake boundary, but a no­ti­fi­ca­tion in this re­gard is pend­ing.

While Ton­don’s view is de­bat­able, Raje in her let­ter points out that the land was leased for min­ing salt, and in case of any change in land use “an ap­proval has to be sought from the Ra­jasthan govern­ment”. Be­sides, any in­dus­trial unit, in­clud­ing so­lar project, must ap­ply to the state en­vi­ron­ment depart­ment for

con­sent to es­tab­lish and op­er­ate, she wrote. The Cen­tre is yet to sub­mit the project pro­posal to the depart­ment.

“We are aware of the con­cerns raised by the Ra­jasthan govern­ment. At the mo­ment we are ly­ing low and wait­ing for the re­sults of the Lok Sabha elec­tions,” says an MNRE of­fi­cial, adding, “It is a good site and we will try to ne­go­ti­ate with the state govern­ment.” Ac­cord­ing to So­lar En­ergy Cor­po­ra­tion of In­dia, a PSU im­ple­ment­ing the project, the site has a plain sur­face with ba­sic in­fras­truc­tural fa­cil­i­ties. A mo­torable road links the site with the Na­tional High­way- 8, just 40- 45 km away. Power sub­sta­tions that are re­quired to trans­mit and dis­trib­ute elec­tric­ity are lo­cated nearby. “We do not want to harm the wet­land. We are set­ting up the project af­ter in­spect­ing that the site is ly­ing bar­ren. How­ever, we are open to the op­tion of set­ting it up in some other site,” he adds.

Sources in the Ra­jasthan govern­ment say the state is look­ing for an al­ter­nate site for the UMSPP be­cause it does not want to let go of the im­por­tant project. But it is de­ter­mined not to al­low the UMSPP in the wet­land.

Frag­ile and dy­ing

In 1990, the Samb­har Salt Lake was de­clared a pro­tected site un­der the Ram­sar Con­ven­tion, a global treaty on wet­lands of in­ter­na­tional im­por­tance. But over the pe­riod, the lake is dy­ing a slow death. Four sea­sonal rivers— the Mendha, Ru­pan­garh, Khar­ian and the Khan­del— which used to feed the lake have hardly con­trib­uted to it in the past five to six years. Res­i­dents of nearby vil­lages build check­dams along the rivers and di­vert the wa­ter for agri­cul­tural use and other pur­poses. Now, the lake is mostly de­pen­dent on rain­wa­ter.

Ram­pant il­le­gal salt pro­duc­tion and ground­wa­ter ex­trac­tion have dried up the lake, ac­cord­ing to a 2008 study by San­jeev Ku­mar, a sci­en­tist at Jodh­pur’s Desert Re­gional Sta­tion of Zo­o­log­i­cal Sur­vey of In­dia. This has threat­ened the lake’s rich ecol­ogy.

“In 1982- 83, more than 500,000 flamin­goes vis­ited the lake. Their num­ber re­duced to 20,000 in 2008. Now there may be just a few hun­dreds,” says Naresh Kadyan, chair­per­son of Haryana- based non- profit People For An­i­mals. Last year, Kadyan filed a pub­lic in­ter­est pe­ti­tion in the Supreme Court, urg­ing the Cen­tre and the state govern­ment to take mea­sures to save the lake. In his pe­ti­tion, Kadyan has ac­cused unau­tho­rised salt man­u­fac­tures of dig­ging borewells in the lakebed and lay­ing pipe­lines, which some­times ex­tend sev- eral kilo­me­tres across the lake, to ex­tract brine. The prac­tice is ram­pant along the lake bor­der­ing Naguar and Ajmer districts, states the pe­ti­tion.

A fact- find­ing com­mit­tee of the state govern­ment, headed by bu­reau­crat Vinod Ka­pur, stated in its 2010 re­port that about 240 borewells were op­er­at­ing in the lakebed. Ex­cess wa­ter ex­trac­tion has low­ered ground­wa­ter lev­els by al­most 60 me­tres in the area. De­prived of recharge from sub­sur­face flows, the lake is shrink­ing, said the re­port.

SSL es­ti­mates that about 2,000 il­le­gal borewells are in oper­a­tion (see ‘Choked on salt’, Down To Earth, May 15- 31, 2013). Ton­don, how­ever, says, “We can­not do any­thing with­out the sup­port of the district col­lec­tors.”

In re­sponse to Kadyan’s pe­ti­tion, the state govern­ment in Fe­bru­ary 2014 in­formed the court that 60 per cent of the lake re­mains dry for more than eight months and that the area un­der wa­ter varies depend­ing upon the in­ten­sity of rain­fall ev­ery year. “Dur­ing peak mon­soon sea­son, only 13,000 ha gets inun­dated,” Ton­don adds.

In 2013, Gehlot passed an or­di­nance to es­tab­lish the Ra­jasthan lake de­vel­op­ment author­ity for con­serv­ing and restor­ing lakes in the desert state. But it is yet to see the light of day.

Raje re­port­edly is relook­ing at the or­di­nance to strengthen it and is dis­cussing the mat­ter with the law depart­ment. “The Na­tional En­vi­ron­men­tal En­gin eering Re­search In­sti­tute in Nag­pur has pre­pared a man­age­ment plan for restora­tion and con­ser­va­tion of Samb­har lake. It will be im­ple­mented by next year,” says Y K Dak, sec­re­tary of the state en­vi­ron­ment depart­ment.

Can so­lar plant co­ex­ist with wet­land?

Plans to set up in­dus­trial projects on wet­lands and op­po­si­tions to them are not new. In the late 1980s, por­tion of Chi­lika Lake in Odisha al­lot­ted to the Tatas for commercial shrimp farm­ing was taken back fol­low­ing protests and con­sid­er­a­tion of its en­vi­ron­men­tal im­pact. More re­cently, clear­ance to a ce­ment plant of Nirma In­dus­tries in a wet­land of Gu­jarat was can­celled fol­low­ing a re­view by the Union Min­istry of En­vi­ron­ment and Forests.

But this is for the first time that a so­lar power project has been pro­posed on wet­land. While the project pro­po­nents be­lieve it can co­ex­ist with wet­land, ex­perts are di­vided over it.

T V Ra­machan­dra, fac­ulty at En­ergy and Wet­lands Re­search Group in the In­dian In­sti­tute of Sci­ences, Ben­galuru, says a so­lar project can be set up on a wet­land as long as it is in the catch­ment and main­tains the 200 me­tres buf­fer from in­un­da­tion site. “This way wa­ter can flow be­neath the pan­els and a grass cover can be grown un­der­neath to aid per­co­la­tion of wa­ter.” Ra­machan­dra, how­ever, could not pro­vide an ex­am­ple of a wet­land that har­bours a so­lar project in other parts of the world.

Ritesh Ku­mar, di­rec­tor of South Asia unit of Wet­lands In­ter­nati onal, says wet­lands should re­main in­vi­o­late be­cause of high eco­log­i­cal value. They sup­port large bi­o­log­i­cal di­ver­sity and pro­vide a wide range of ecosys­tem ser­vices in­clud­ing ground­wa­ter recharge, ero­sion con­trol and flood mit­i­ga­tion. Critis­ing SSL’s ar­gu­ment for al­low­ing the so­lar project in Samb­har, he says, “Just be­cause a part of the wet­land has not been inun­dated for quite some time does not mean it is bar­ren.” There are in­stances of changes in in­un­da­tion pat­terns that might be at­trib­uted to al­ter­ation or frag­men­ta­tion of hy­dro­log­i­cal regimes within the basin. Ef­forts need to be made to re­store the eco­log­i­cal condi- tions rather than pro­mot­ing al­ter­nate uses that are bound to change the char­ac­ter of a wet­land, he adds.

San­jeev Ku­mar says an UMSPP would be detri­men­tal to the lake’s ecol­ogy and flamin­goes. “They are tall birds and land in flocks. They need vast un­hin­dered ar­eas for move­ment and feed­ing which Samb­har lake pro­vides.” He dis­putes project pro­po­nents’ view that flamin­goes are found only be­tween Gudha Ja­pog dam and Shakum­bari Mata tem­ple (see map). They move all across the lake as wind takes al­gal blooms to the edge of shal­low wa­ters, he adds.

Dhruba­jy­oti Ghosh, a wet­land ecol­o­gist based in Kolkata, says catch­ment of a wa­ter­body is meant to catch wa­ter, which should not be com­pro­mised. Be­sides, the lake was al­lowed to dry up. Now, in­stead of restor­ing the lake, the govern­ment is us­ing its bar­ren state as fait ac­com­pli to set up the project.

The de­bate over co­ex­is­tence of so­lar power project with wet­land is fu­tile as the project is a clear vi­o­la­tion of wet­land rules, says Brij Gopal, co­or­di­na­tor of Cen­tre for In­land Wa­ters in South Asia.

Chan­dra Bhushan, deputy di­rec­tor gen­eral of Delhi- based non- profit Cen­tre for Sci­ence and En­vi­ron­ment, cau­tions against set­ting up UMSPPs. “In­dia is the only coun­try which is in­vest­ing in big so­lar PV projects. These are not cost-ef­fec­tive. The four UMSPP of 16,000 MW will cost ` 1.2 lakh crore and re­quire 35,000 ha. At least 10,000 MW worth of small so­lar plants and min­i­grids can be set up us­ing this money and much less land. This is suf­fi­cient to light up half of the house­holds with­out elec­tric­ity in ru­ral In­dia.”

Samb­har salt lake is the sec­ond largest breed­ing ground of flamin­goes in In­dia

Ram­pant il­le­gal salt min­ing has dried up Samb­har lake

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