Government may ask Supreme Court to waive forest clearance norm to build new power lines
The government is planning to approach the Supreme Court for permission for waiving a forest clearance norm for expediting the building of new power transmission lines. This includes a critical alternate new line being constructed to insulate the energy-starved Kashmir valley, where Prime Minister Narendra Modi is spending Diwali, from slipping into darkness each time there's adverse weather. "The government has legal opinion that the apex court could be asked to consider exempting power transmission lines from the stringent norms governing forest clearance and passage through wildlife sanctuaries," a senior official told ET, requesting anonymity.
Currently, linear projects like roads, oil and gas pipelines as well as power transmission lines that pass through wildlife sanctuaries require SC nod. Since 1995, the Supreme Court has acted as an additional gate-keeper to India's forests and has put in place additional requirements for any diversion of land from wild habitats. The Centre is likely to request the court to treat power transmission lines differently as they have a much smaller footprint and don't involve large-scale deforestation by cutting trees, the official explained.
A differentiated treatment, if it gets the Court's nod, could fasttrack all power transmission line projects, but would be particularly critical for a new 1,000 mw power line, being built by Vedanta Resources' group firm Sterlite Technologies, to connect Kashmir with energy surplus Punjab that passes through extremely challenging snow-bound and densely forested terrain, including Rajouri, Shopiyan and close to the Line of Control.
Sterlite Technologies CEO Anand Agarwal told ET that though the terrain is difficult, the firm has the technology to execute the Rs 2800 crore transmission line in about four years. "If unknowns such as wildlife and forest clearances are taken out of the way, this critical alternate line for Jammu and Kashmir can be built rapidly," he said. "SC requirement for approving every project within wildlife sanctuaries, may be done away with for power transmission lines that don't destroy wildlife," he said. Existing transmission and telecom lines into the valley pass through the Pir Panjal mountain range, which is very susceptible to the vagaries of weather, triggering communication and power outages.
"Parts of the new line will be built at 10,000 feet above sea level and through dense forest, including a wildlife sanctuary. It's only possible to work 4-5 months each year in these conditions, so it could take a dozen years to complete with a business-as-usual approach," said another official aware of the development. Power lines also don't interfere much with wildlife and take up very thin 'tree-like spaces,' the official said. Finance Minister Arun Jaitley's maiden Budget had extended the sunset clause for profit-linked tax breaks on building power transmission lines from March 31, 2014 to March 2017. An industry expert familiar with the green clearances regime said that seeking a Supreme Court okay alone could take two to three years for a project.
"Given that the impact of power transmission lines is relatively lesser than a highway as they won't impact terrestrial wildlife, it is a good idea to seek an exemption from the Supreme Court and propose an alternate mechanism to scrutinize them. This is especially important in projects of strategic national importance," she said. The contract to build a new and more robust transmission line, through the alternate route proposed by the J&K government, was awarded to Sterlite Technologies' power grid subsidiary in August this year. Apart from the tough terrain, the project poses other challenges. The government has to buy land for the 500 towers proposed across the route and lease it to the developer, resolve right of way and forest clearance processes promptly due to the limited time window in which actual construction can take place every year.
The government is likely to task the oversight of the Kashmir transmission line to the power ministry and the project monitoring group set up under the cabinet secretariat to expedite large investments. The company has told the PMO that the group in the cabinet secretariat has already helped the company fast-track projects worth over `4,000 crore that were tangled in red tape with state and central governments. Sterlite Technologies, through its subsidiary Sterlite Grid Limited, is the largest private operator of transmission systems, with assets worth Rs 8,000 crore in 10 states, of which Rs 5,000 crore are in advanced stages of completion.