The environment ministry has decided to independently allow the cutting of trees for development projects in eco-sensitive zones around 650 wildlife areas “without waiting” for the approval of the Supreme Court and the government’s expert wildlife committee, a decision that signals a confrontation with the judiciary.
The government will seek the court and committee’s approval only for projects proposed inside protected areas. Such projects account for less than 10% of the proposals considered by the Forest Advisory Committee (FAC) for diversion of forestland for all types of mining, infrastructure and defence projects.
In a new set of rules stipulated for examining projects involving wildlife, the ministry said it will decide on diversion of forestland for projects around protected areas without waiting for approval of the Supreme Court or the Standing Committee of the National Board for Wildlife (NBWL).
“The central government will examine the recommendations of the FAC in respect to forestland located outside protected areas and will take decisions on the merit of each case without waiting for approval of standing committee of NBWL and the Supreme Court,” said the order issued by HC Chaudhary on the direction of environment minister Prakash Javadekar.
Chaudhary was not available for comment despite repeated attempts.
The Supreme Court in 2005 had made seeking its approval and examination of the projects by the standing committee of the NBWL a mandatory condition before the ministry decided on projects in and around wildlife areas.
This, in the government’s view, led to delays in execution of crucial infrastructure projects in and around wildlife areas. The ministry, on the directions of the prime minister’s office, filed an application in the Supreme Court in April, seeking relaxation of the 2005 order on the ground that project approval was an executive power and not one of the judiciary.
Exercising its executive power, the ministry issued a guideline for state governments on diversion of forestland that takes away the court’s powers partially.
Environmental lawyer Ritwick Dutta said the guideline violated the Wildlife Protection Act which provides for National Board for Wildlife approval of all projects in and around protected areas.
The wildlife law says areas linking a protected area or tiger reserve with another protected area or tiger reserve should not be diverted for ecologically unsustainable uses except in public interest, with approval of the National Board on the advice of the National Tiger Conservation Authority.
“No statutory provision can be curtailed by a government circular or an office memorandum. The power to amend the law is only vested with Parliament and not the ministry,” Dutta said, adding that the guideline was also in violation of the Supreme Court order in the Goa Foundation case. The foundation had claimed allowing projects in and around wildlife areas without proper appraisal violated the Wildlife Protection Act. The guideline does not mention the Wildlife Protection Act under which the SC had issued its direction and refers only to the Forest Conservation (FC) Act that allows diversion of forestland projects.
It provides a new set of procedure for consideration of projects by the Forest Advisory Committee (FAC), a statutory body set up under the FC Act, in and around wildlife parks and sanctuaries.