NDA government green-lighted 65% infra projects; activists sound red alert
The current NDA government’s wildlife clearance rate was 65% (519 of 794), compared to 45.5% (260 of 571) of the previous UPA-II government, according to data from the ‘State of Environment 2019’ report released recently by a research and advocacy group, Centre for Science and Environment (CSE).
Wildlife clearances involve authorities at the national and state-level for projects related to linear infrastructure, transmission lines, hydroelectric power, seismic surveys, exploration for oil, drilling, and different types of mining activities. After being reviewed by the state board of wildlife and the state government, the standing committee of the National Board of Wildlife (NBWL) scrutinises and clears proposals.
The rate of rejection of the NDA government was negligible, with 1.1% projects disallowed between June 2014 and May 2018. While the sanctioned proposals impacted 24,329 hectares (ha) of forest and wildlife zones in the country, both inside and outside protected areas (PAs), 249, or 31.3%, were deferred for additional details or requirements, 17 projects were de-listed and nine projects rejected. “It can be said that practically no proposal has been denied clearance under this government,” the report read. “What is clear from the trend is that the process of seeking clearances is increasingly becoming a formality,” read the conclusion of the report.
“From allowing coal mining projects in eco-sensitive areas to recommending numerous linear infrastructure projects across wildlife habitats in northeast India and central India, the entire process to study and issue clearances has been diluted,” said Srestha Banerjee, programme manager, environmental governance unit, CSE.
“On some occasions, projects have been cleared despite the minutes recording arguments against them, and on some others, the committee has not waited for the detailed findings of the project site inspection committees before granting its approval,” the CSE report said.
The Union environment ministry explained the rise in approvals, saying earlier NBWL clearance was needed only for protected areas. “However, the Supreme Court declared a 10km buffer area outside national parks and wildlife sanctuaries as eco-sensitive zones, and proposals in these areas needed to be examined by NBWL also. As a result, the number of proposals rose to more than double,” said Siddhanta Das, director general of forests, Ministry of Environment, Forests and Climate Change (MoEFCC). “Secondly, we have a much more transparent web-based system that allows people to apply for clearances easily. Most proposals are public utility projects and they are rigorously scrutinised at the district, state and then by NBWL, which further weighs each application by providing appropriate recommendations for its feasibility.”
Congress leader and former union environment minister Jairam Ramesh said many proposals that were rejected during UPA-II tenure have been cleared under the current government. “There is a lopsided obsession with ease of doing business, which proved disastrous for ecological protection.”
Current NBWL members said project clearances now come with certain mandatory conditions, which were not there before. “As India is going through a rapid phase of development, all road projects across the country causing fragmentation or loss to wildlife are being approved with compulsory wildlife mitigation plans. Such stringency was never there before 2014,” said VB Mathur, director, Wildlife Institute of India, Dehradun and NBWL SC member. “In August 2018, the environment ministry notified the ‘animal passage plan’, which also makes it mandatory to provide wildlife safety measures before drafting the plan passing through PAs.”
Ecologists said that irrespective of which government is in power, clearances have always been issued regardless of their merit. “Clearances are being filled with wrong information and incorrect analysis to suit the needs of those in power. However, the impression is the current administration has a shoddier record in protecting what is at stake,” said Madhav Gadgil, ecologist and founder of the Centre for Ecological Sciences at Indian Institute of Science, Bengaluru.