In a first, the government is allowing projects around wildlife areas in the country for a price — Rs 43,000 per hectare — without waiting for an approval of a panel having wildlife experts. And that has left the activists aghast.
The environment ministry’s Forest Advisory Committee (FAC) —mandated to allow cutting of trees — has allowed three projects this year close to the wildlife areas including a tiger and an elephant habitat. Normally, the standing committee of the national board for wildlife headed by the environment minister approves projects in and around wildlife areas but the FAC did not refer them to it for consent.
“It was not needed,” an environment ministry official said, adding that “a rule change last year gave FAC power to approve projects outside the wildlife areas” by charging wildlife management fee.
The amendment was part of green reform undertaken by former environment minister Prakash Javadekar to speed up green approvals as part of National Democratic Alliance’s (NDA) bid to improve its ranking in ease of doing business.
The FAC has decided that a project developer will have to pay Rs 43,000 per hectare of forest land diverted for wildlife management. This is in addition to the higher fee — based on value and forest density — they have to pay for cutting trees.
An analysis by the Delhi-based advocacy group the EIA Resource Centre showed that the wildlife levy has been imposed for the first time on three projects in 2016.
In August 2016, the FAC allowed mining in Odisha’s Sukinda mineral zone that cuts through a corridor used by endangered species such as elephants, pangolin and sloth bear.
Another mining approval was given to Tata Steel close to an elephant habitat in Keonjhar district of Odisha, the minutes of the FAC meeting held in March 2016 shows. The approval was given despite objections by local wildlife activists.
The third one came in Chamoli district of Uttarakhand in February 2016 where 252 MW hydel project is coming up in ecologically sensitive Himalayan region. The ministry’s regional office in Lucknow pointed out that the region has rare animals like Himalayan Tahar, black bear, snow leopard and musk deer but the FAC approved the project after imposing the levy.
Pushp Jain of EIA Resource Centre that appraised all projects approved by FAC in 2016 said the concern for wildlife has been lost in a bid to give faster approval to projects. “High intensity projects such as mining and hydel disturbs wildlife leading to inbreeding,” he said.
The ministry, however, believes the new fund will give incentive to wildlife conservation by forest departments which face fund crunch along with speeding up project approval rate.