The two most important national level committees responsible for wildlife conservation in India are increasingly being turned into rubber stamps for whatever officialdom wants done.
The National Board for Wildlife (NBWL) has become a forum to greenwash a host of ‘development’ projects that threaten wildlife habitats, while the National Tiger Conservation Authority (NTCA) continues to steamroller a blinkered model of conservation.
In both, civil society members have been reduced to either ineffective dissent, or silent complicity.
A meeting of the NBWL Standing Committee on April 25, chaired by the minister of state for environment and forests Jairam Ramesh, dealt with nearly 60 infrastructure and other projects in/around wildlife habitats in two hours.
About 30 of the agenda items were sent to members two days before the meeting, while the notification setting up the Standing Committee states that agenda items must be sent to members two weeks in advance.
Dissent from NGO members regarding projects likely to have negative impacts was reportedly brushed aside by the Chair. Subsequent dissent notes were, however, included in the minutes, though they were posted online without waiting for members’ comments.
The NBWL has faced governance problems for years. A number of crucial conservation issues, like mining in wildlife habitats, declaration of eco-sensitive areas among others have not been taken up in the last three or four meetings.
While the MoEF insists that that stringent conditions are imposed to minimise damage from developmental projects, it is well aware of its abysmal record in enforcing compliance to such conditions.
Research based on RTI data obtained by colleagues in Kalpavriksh revealed that of the over 6,000 projects given clearance, officers can check on them once every three to four years. Conditional clearance is a colossal fraud on the nation.
The NTCA suffers from similar problems. Its meetings are few and far between (the last two were in January 2010 and March 2011). Minutes regularly do not reflect full discussions, leaving out inconvenient or uncomfortable issues taken up by non-official members.
The minutes of the March 2011 meeting do not reflect the minister’s own observations that the Biligiri Rangaswamy Temple Sanctuary (BRTS) was improperly notified as a tiger reserve by the Karnataka state government, without waiting for final approval from NTCA.
It is obvious that these Committees are facing serious crises, with NGO members being forced to accept decisions arrived at by powerful individuals in the MoEF. While some have protested, many are not even raising their voice.
If civil society is silenced or resorts to self-censorship, the Committees cannot do a good job of conserving India’s wildlife.
(Ashish Kothari is associated with Kalpavriksh, Pune. The views expressed by the author are personal)