680 projects in protected areas given wildlife clearance in 5 years
The National Board for Wildlife (NBWL) has never met during the past five years with all its 47 members in attendance. Only the standing committee of the NBWL, which the board constitutes and is authorised to exercise its powers, met 23 times between 2015-16 and 2019-20, a period during which 680 projects were granted wildlife clearance, the environment ministry informed the Rajya Sabha on September 14.
These projects are located in protected areas or wildlife-rich areas, and the fact that such a large number of projects were cleared without the full board meeting even once raised questions whether the NBWL was carrying out its mandate of promoting conservation of wildlife and development of forests,
“As per law it is the NBWL that constitutes the standing committee. If NBWL hasn’t even met in the past five years when and how did they constitute the standing committee? The standing committee is supposed to work under the direction and supervision of NBWL, if they never meet there is no way of exercising supervision,”said environmental lawyer Ritwick Dutta.
“There is no power vested in the standing committee or even NBWL to approve projects inside protected areas unless it is for the benefit of wildlife. The law is very clear on that. The standing committee and its approval of various projects which can cause immense damage to wildlife are illegal,” Dutta said.
The Prime Minister is the chairman of the 47-member NBWL, whose members include three MPs; five representatives of non-government organisations; 10 eminent conservationists or experts; and heads of the Central Zoo Authority; National Institute of Oceanography; Zoological Survey of India; secretary of the ministry of tribal affairs; and one representative each from 10 states and UTs on a rotational basis.
The board is mandated to promote conservation of wildlife and development of forests, according to the Wildlife Protection Act.
“We need to analyse data to see if there is an increase in wildlife clearances compared to previous years,” said a senior environment ministry (forest division) official on condition of anonymity.
An analysis of total wildlife clearances recommended or granted between 2010 and 2015 was not available, but according to a paper published on June 26, 2010, in the Economic and Political Weekly titled Diversion of Protected Areas: Role of the Wildlife Board, the standing committee of NBWL considered 244 projects for diversion of forests in wildlife areas between 1998 and 2008.
Out of the 244 cases considered between 1998 and 2008, 25 cases were approved, 17 rejected and 202 cases were kept pending. These proposals were for the non-forest use of 2,75,875 hectares within protected areas.
The NBWL was constituted in 2003 after the amendment of Section 5A of the Wildlife (Protection) Act. Its predecessor was he Indian Board for Wildlife, which was also headed by the PM. In addition to areas within protected areas, any project requiring environmental clearance (under the Environment Impact Assessment Notification, 2006) or any activity within 10 kilometers of a national park or sanctuary needs the permission of the NBWL.
According to NBWL’s meeting minutes uploaded on the Parivesh website, 24 members met on July 3; but on June 11, only five members met and on April 7, 26 members participated in a meeting through video conferencing.
According to an analysis by the Legal Initiative for Forest and Environment, a legal and environmental organization, the standing committee of the NBWL considered 59 proposals between January and July this year out of which 28 proposals were for diversion of land within wildlife sanctuaries and national parks.
A total of 212.23 hectares was diverted in wildlife sanctuaries and national parks and conservation reserves; no proposal was rejected. Around 74% of diversion was due to linear projects (transmission lines, roads and bridges) and 222.67 hectares was approved for diversion within tiger habitat for linear projects, defence projects and infrastructure development.
“The NBWL has the mandate to inform and push the government to prioritise conservation of wildlife and forests; take measures to contain illegal poaching and wildlife trade and even publish a status report on wildlife in India every two years. This mandate has gone missing in the recent years. Instead the NBWL and its standing committee have unfortunately been in the news for letting go of areas important for wildlife for linear and area based infrastructure projects like roads or hydro power,” said Kanchi Kohli, legal researcher at the Centre for Policy Research.
Some contentious approvals granted recently include allowing coal mining in the Dehing Patkai Elephant Reserve; expansion of the National Highway 4-A, double-tracking an existing railway line and laying a 400 KV transmission line in Bhagwan Mahavir Wildlife Sanctuary and Mollem National Park, Goa; the nod given to the Mumbai-Ahmedabad bullet train project for which forest land will be utilised from the eco-sensitive zone of Sanjay Gandhi National Par, Tungareshwar wildlife sanctuary and Thane creek flamingo sanctuary .
In reply to another query, the environment ministry said it had received 31 coal mining projects for environmental clearance this year. Out of these, 14 projects have been granted environment clearances while seven project developers have either withdrawn their applications or not participated in the appraisal process. The rest are pending because of additional queries raised by the appraisal committees.
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