Maharashtra forms 4 sub-committees to expedite critical wildlife habitat declaration

At present, not just the state, the entire country does not have a single critical wildlife habitat despite guidelines being put in place by the Union environment ministry in January 2018
The civet cat has vanished from Sanjay Gandhi Park.(File photo)
The civet cat has vanished from Sanjay Gandhi Park.(File photo)
Updated on Dec 16, 2020 01:25 PM IST
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Hindustan Times, Mumbai | By Badri Chatterjee

The Maharashtra government has formed four sub-committees of the State Board of Wildlife (SBWL) to examine proposals for the critical wildlife habitats (CWH) and expedite their declaration, according to a government resolution (GR) issued on Tuesday.

The state also published a GR on the formation of a panel (study group) to prepare a five-year conservation action plan for pangolins – the world’s most trafficked animal. HT had on Monday reported the state nod for it. The panel would be headed by Ramesh Kumar, conservator of forests (wildlife), Pune.

Meanwhile, the four CWH sub-committees were set up across revenue sub-divisions such as Nagpur, Amravati, Konkan and Nashik, and Pune and Aurangabad. Each committee has at least two members with a coordinating forest officer. Responsibilities of the committees include verification of CWH proposals submitted by the expert committee for a particular sub-division on the basis of guidelines issued by the Centre, investigate interests of local people towards creating the CWH, check whether biodiversity will be conserved under the CWH tag, and submit reports to the SBWL within 15 days of receiving a proposal, the GR said.

The matter was taken up by the state after SBWL member Kishor Rithe put it up for discussion during a meeting on August 7.

At present, not just the state, the entire country does not have a single CWH despite guidelines being put in place by the Union environment ministry in January 2018. However, state chief wildlife warden said he had approved proposals for eight CWHs in Vidarbha and western Maharashtra, which will be put forth before the SBWL during its next meeting.

The Forest Rights Act (FRA), 2006, includes the provision to notify CWHs, which are areas required to be kept “inviolate for the purposes of wildlife conservation” identified within protected areas (PAs) such as national parks and sanctuaries. Thus, declaration of CWH does not necessarily involve resettlement of forest-dwellers, it can also be an area of co-existence after modification of forest rights. FRA applies here as forest rights of scheduled tribes and traditional forest dwellers are taken into account while proposing a CWH while Wildlife Protection Act, 1972, implies the conservation of the PA.

At present as per existing guidelines, the proposal to declare a CWH is assessed on a case by case basis under scientific, objective criteria and examine community forest rights with village panchayats by expert committees formed for each PA, which include government and non-government members, social scientists, ecologists, and representatives from the village panchayat and tribal welfare.

Maharashtra intends on declaring CWHs across all 55 PAs (49 wildlife sanctuaries and six national parks). “The idea is to declare a CWH in every PA of the state and ensure the process is completed swiftly to push for the protection of not only tigers, leopards, and elephants but threatened species like the Great Indian Bustard, Mouse Deer, Giant Malabar Squirrel, and Oriental Small Clawed Otter from going extinct,” said Nitin Kakodkar, principal chief conservator of forest (wildlife), Maharashtra.

Kakodkar said the expert committees have identified a particular area within the PA as a CWH. Their proposals will be studied by the sub-committee, and then recommended to SBWL. Once the SBWL approves, the proposal will be sent to the National Board for Wildlife for its recommendation. Once that happens, the Centre will publish a notification calling for suggestions and objections for a stipulated time period following which the CWH will be declared. “I have approved eight proposals, mostly from Melghat Wildlife Sanctuary, few more areas in Vidarbha and few from along the Western Ghats. The Nagpur and Amravati sub-committees will soon commence deliberating on them,” he said.

Rithe said it would have been more effective to set up only one larger overarching committee accommodating all members rather than division sub committees. “All the committees need to have common understanding while dealing with the complex PA issues. However, I have requested PCCF to address this problem,” he said.

The issue of CWHs was first raised by environment group Vanashakti through its 2014 petition before the Bombay high court that sought directions to demarcate CWH to protect species from going extinct from PAs due to direct human intervention, agricultural expansion, poaching etc. An example highlighted was of Sanjay Gandhi National Park where the striped hyena and civet cat had gone extinct. “After years of struggle, wildlife finally gets a small space to survive,” said Stalin D, director, Vanashakti, adding that to conserve species, it was imperative that some areas are kept free from human intervention. “Maharashtra will be the first state to demarcate CWHs, and hopefully, we will be able to stem the rapid decline and loss of biodiversity,” he said.

Report flagged procedural lapses in CWH identification

As Maharashtra steps up its efforts to declare CWHs across all PAs, a report released by the Ashoka Trust for Research in Ecology and the Environment and non-profit Kalpavriksh in August highlighted several violations by the state while proposing a CWH. According to the report, the process of forest rights recognition was far from complete across 39 PAs with over 1,000 villages whose rights could overlap with the PA boundaries. Among these, only 150-odd villages had received community forest resource rights. The second finding included the claim by the forest department that 25 PAs did not have any human habitation, which the report stated was incorrect. Third, the PA expert committees were functioning without outlining specific criteria and were interpreting the CWH as simply free of humans and not demonstrating actual threat to the existence of wildlife.

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Monday, October 18, 2021