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Withdraw green nods given during lockdown: Conservationists to minister

PUBLISHED ON MAY 13, 2020 11:55 PM IST

Conservationists have expressed their concerns about issuance of environmental clearances for large projects in forests and ecologically fragile regions, during the Covid-19 pandemic.

Citing that the environment ministry is responsible for upholding forest, wildlife and environment protection, 291 conservation scientists, academics from premier wildlife research institutes, wildlife biologists, 12 former members of the standing committee of the National Board for Wildlife (NBWL), former affiliates of the Forest Advisory Committee (FAC), and academics from universities such as Columbia, Yale, Michigan, and Cambridge, and non-profit bodies among others, wrote a letter to Union environment minister Prakash Javadekar on Tuesday.

The letter criticised the approvals for infrastructure, industrial and mining projects in critical wildlife habitats during lockdown. The writers opposed the idea of consultations and meetings through video-conferencing to evaluate the environmental impact of projects rather than waiting for the lockdown to end when projects could be appraised through site inspections and public hearings.

The conservationists called for the withdrawal of clearances issued by expert panels under the Ministry of Environment, Forests and Climate Change (MoEFCC) during the lockdown as well as temporary suspension of all decisions taken via video-conferencing until pandemic-related travel restrictions are lifted.

“The environment ministry has bulldozed major forest clearances during lockdown even as the pandemic is a glaring reminder of the consequences of toying with nature,” said Asad Rahmani, former director, Bombay Natural History Society (BNHS), one of the signatories. Former NBWL member Kishore Rithe said, “As our protected areas (only 4% of country’s total geographic area) are the country’s last remaining wildlife habitats, granting clearance to any project proposed inside them should be the last resort. NBWL needs to check the authenticity of information provided by project proponents which includes status of the forest land, notifications, maps, and orders passed by the courts. The lockdown does not allow fair screening of 40% of major proposals that need site inspection.”

On April 7 during the 57th meeting of NBWL’s Standing Committee, 31 proposals affecting 15 tiger reserves, sanctuaries, buffer zones and wildlife corridors were considered. Of these proposals, 16 linear infrastructure projects, which pass through protected areas, were issued clearances. Javadekar, who had chaired the meeting, had issued approvals for projects from 11 different states.

Expert Appraisal Committees (EAC), bodies under the ministry, on April 22-24 approved a slew of infrastructure project proposals as part of considering 145 projects between April and June. Ten EACs have conducted 15 meetings in this regard so far, according to the Union environment ministry’s Parivesh portal.

The letter suggested that under normal circumstances, EAC meetings would last an entire day. In comparison, meetings during the lockdown had lasted only two hours, with only 10 minutes to appraise each project. “We urge that all meetings of the NBWL, FAC and all 10 EACs be postponed as long as travel restrictions are in place,” the letter read.

While two projects were recently deferred during an FAC meet on April 23, the FAC subcommittee on April 21 recommended the Etalin Hydropower Project in Arunachal Pradesh’s Dibang Valley which collectively harbours one of the richest biodiversity on earth, as well as exploration for Uranium in Telangana’s Amrabad Tiger Reserve. Both projects led to massive social media campaigns against the proposals. “It is inexcusable that our government continues to pursue a development model which depends on destroying nature, especially when there is sufficient evidence of more sustainable options,” said Dr Ravi Chellam, wildlife biologist.

The letter also quoted a Supreme Court judgment from 2011 which allowed French cement company Lafarge to mine limestone in a forest in Meghalaya after issuing guidelines to be followed in such cases. As part of the guidelines, MoEFCC was asked to frame a comprehensive policy for inspection, verification and monitoring procedure by forest officials along with regional MoEFCC officials to ascertain the status of forests before granting clearances, and appoint a ‘national regulator’ for appraising projects. “The compliance of these guidelines may not be possible during the lockdown period which may amount to a serious deviation in the clearance process,” the letter read, adding that the MoEFCC was relying only on digital documents uploaded by project developers on the ministry’s portal.

“Shockingly, key guidelines are being ignored, including the failure to appoint a National Regulator for appraising projects. MoEFCC appears to be abdicating its constitutional obligation of ensuring environmental protection. Granting fast-track clearances has now become the rule,” said Praveen Bhargav, former NBWL member.

Minister of State for Environment Babul Supriyo declined to comment on the letter. However, a senior MoEFCC official said, “Every project undergoes careful scrutiny before issuance of clearances. We must also consider the importance of economic growth and sustainable development, especially during the current Covid-19 crisis.”

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