Govt exempts key infra projects from wildlife fund rules

Published on Jan 19, 2023 11:49 PM IST

The Union environment ministry under guidelines issued on June 7, 2022 made it mandatory for all projects to deposit 2% of the total project cost towards the cost of implementation of WMP and 0.5% for SMCP, as the case may be, for the purpose of obtaining Stage-II (final forest) clearance under the Forest Conservation Act 1980.

The Centre decided to tweak the guidelines for road and other linear projects such as rail lines, sidewalks, trails, and transmission lines after it was pointed out that these would end up paying for the entire length of the project even though only a small part would pass through a forest. (HT Photo)
The Centre decided to tweak the guidelines for road and other linear projects such as rail lines, sidewalks, trails, and transmission lines after it was pointed out that these would end up paying for the entire length of the project even though only a small part would pass through a forest. (HT Photo)
ByJayashree Nandi, New Delhi

The Centre has exempted road, rail, and transmission line projects from having to deposit 2% and 0.5% of the total project cost towards the cost of the Wildlife Management Plan (WMP) and Soil and Moisture Conservation Plan (SMCP) in a move that will benefit developers, but which has been criticised by environmentalists.

The Union environment ministry under guidelines issued on June 7, 2022 made it mandatory for all projects to deposit 2% of the total project cost towards the cost of implementation of WMP and 0.5% for SMCP, as the case may be, for the purpose of obtaining Stage-II (final forest) clearance under the Forest Conservation Act 1980.

It decided to tweak the guidelines for road and other linear projects such as rail lines, sidewalks, trails, and transmission lines after it was pointed out that these would end up paying for the entire length of the project even though only a small part would pass through a forest.

“Adverting to said guidelines, representation has been received in the ministry that given the involvement of huge cost in road projects, the 2% and 0.5% cost of WMP and SCMP is too large in comparison to meagre forest area involved in the project and accordingly, the ministry was requested to revisit the said guidelines guideline,” a letter issued to state governments and union territories on January 16 said. HT has seen a copy of the letter.

The representations were also discussed by the Forest Advisory Committee (FAC) of the ministry on December 9 last year. The issue was earlier considered by the FAC in its meeting held on October 17, 2022 also wherein the committee decided that since the National Board of Wildlife has already considered and taken a decision in a similar matter while dealing with the Dehradun – Ganeshpur Road, it would l be prudent to obtain the view of the wildlife division of the ministry.

The wildlife division , in its comments said that the National Board for Wildlife in its meeting held on January 5, 2021 on the Dehradun-Ganeshpur Road said the “condition of depositing 2% of proportionate project cost of the project passing through the eco -ensitive zone of the Rajaji Tiger Reserve should be removed and the amount already deposited should be adjusted in future projects of NHAI (national Highways Authority of India) in Uttar Pradesh…”

Following this, FAC observed that given the huge cost of road (and so-called linear) projects, the 2% and 0.5% cost was too large in comparison to the forest area involved in the projects. It said that it made sense to instead define the amount as 2% or 0.5%of the cost of the project passing through the forest area , and not of the total project cost.

The ministry has now officially communicated its decision to states and UTs. “In respect of linear projects, the stipulated norms of 2% and 0.5% towards the cost of WMP and SMCP, as provided in the ministry’s guidelines dated 8.06.2022, will be proportionate to the extent of forest land involved instead of total project cost or actual cost of implementation of such plans, whichever is more...,” it wrote in its January 16 letter.

“The matter is simple. Road projects are very expensive. They may be passing through a small forest area or eco-sensitive zone of a national park but its not right to ask them to pay based on the entire project cost. It should be proportionate to the extent of forest area involved. So, the guidelines will now be rationalised for road projects based on the forest area involved” said a senior official of the ministry’s forest division who asked not to be named.

Environmentalists said sometimes the damage from road projects in eco-sensitive zones is irreversible and costs imposed should act as a deterrent. “The Char Dham road through the Bhagirathi Eco-sensitive zone in Uttarakhand will have massive impact on forests and wildlife. It’s shocking that the government wants to make it easier to build roads involving diversion of forests. No cost can compensate for the loss but it should act as a deterrent. Even if wildlife management costs are reduced for the ministry of roads and transport, their landslide maintenance costs in Uttarakhand are going up to over a hundred crores in some stretches,” said Mallika Bhanot, member of Uttarakhand based Ganga Ahvaan.

“Mitigation measures through effective wildlife management plans are critical in providing a way to wildlife. This is not only limited to forest areas but also non-forest land which are used by a variety of wildlife to move around. The leopard that was killed on the Delhi Meerut expressway on Wednesday was not moving through a forest. Underpasses and overpasses and other mitigation structures are critical. My opinion is that the road or rail projects should be asked to pay the actual cost of these structures without delay. It may be more than 2% of the project cost but that cost has to be paid for. In fact, these mitigation measures are actually a part of the project cost and cannot be externalised. If there is a river crossing the route, aren’t bridges built? It’s the same thing. Impact of roads on wildlife is huge,” said Ritwick Dutta, environmental and wildlife lawyer.

“I understand that sometimes roads span a 100 km and the forest area covered is only 2% or less. So, if the environment ministry doesn’t want to charge 2% of project cost, it should charge the actual cost of mitigation in forest and non-forest land involved but to say only 2% of project cost in forest area involved has to be paid is not fair or effective,” he added.

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