Bengaluru: India’s laws prohibit construction in sanctuaries & national parks. Yet, over 19 months, a government-controlled committee with no clear authority approved in such areas land more than three times the size of Mumbai’s Nariman Point business district for dams, power lines and roads.
Between January and July 2020, a committee of the National Board for Wildlife cleared the use of 212.23 hectares of wildlife sanctuaries, national parks and conservation reserves for “developmental” projects in violation of The Wildlife Protection Act (WLPA), 1972, according to an August, 2020 analysis by Legal Initiative for Forest and Environment (LIFE), an environmental advocacy. The approval comes after a similar one for 480 hectares in 2019.
Using such protected areas for “development” is illegal because the WLPA prohibits damage, destruction, or diversion of “protected areas” (PAs) unless it is to improve and better manage wildlife. PAs refer to wildlife sanctuaries, national parks, conservation reserves and community reserves, and an example of “permissible activities” would be repairs to existing roads within wildlife sanctuaries and national parks for wildlife patrols.
LIFE reviewed minutes of the meetings of the Standing Committee of the National Board for Wildlife (SC-NBWL) held in 2020, and found that “not even a single approval is backed with reasons on how it benefits wildlife”. The diversions span 14 PAs across 10 states.
The NBWL is headed by prime minister Narendra Modi and the SC-NBWL is headed by Prakash Javadekar, the environment minister.
Section 5C of the WLPA also states that “it shall be the duty of the National Board to promote the conservation and development of wild life (sic) and forests…” by framing policies and advising governments on wildlife conservation, carrying out impact assessments of projects and activities on wildlife habitats etc.
In practice, said Praveen Bhargav, former member of the NBWL, “the Board has been converted to a clearing house (for the government).”
“The mandate of the NBWL is not to clear projects [inside PAs]” said Prerna Bindra, former member of NBWL.
Nevertheless, out of 28 proposals that sought land diversion within PAs in the first seven months of 2020, 21 were approved by SC-NBWL and the remaining seven were deferred. No proposal was rejected.
Diversions include areas in the Mollem National Park in Goa, Girnar Wildlife Sanctuary in Gujarat and Eturnagaram Wildlife Sanctuary in Telangana.
Apart from diversions in PAs, 222.67 hectares were approved for diversion in the first six months of 2020 within tiger habitats: tiger reserves notified under the WLPA and areas contiguous to such reserves that serve as lawfully protected corridors for tigers and other species.
Diversions include areas in the Dampa Tiger Reserve in Mizoram, the buffer zone of Pakke Tiger Reserve in Arunachal Pradesh, the Melghat Tiger Reserve in Maharashtra and the Rajaji Tiger Reserve in Uttarakhand. Land taken over in Melghat and Rajaji was for “linear” projects, mining and infrastructure.
On 28 September, Article 14 sought comments over mail about the illegal wildlife clearances from various officials at the ministry of environment, forests and climate change (MoEFCC): Rameshwar Prasad Gupta, secretary; Sanjay Kumar, director general of forests and special secretary; Soumitra Dasgupta, additional director general of forests; and environment minister Javadekar. We will update this story if and when we receive a response.
The push to clear these projects illustrates how India is opening up its wildlife sanctuaries and national parks to roads, railways, mines and industries by weakening its own environmental laws and procedures. At risk are the country's last forests, natural resources and the health of its people, as stories carried in Article 14 (here, here, here, here, here and here) have explained.
In the first half of 2020, 74% of diversions in PAs were towards “linear”—land requirements along a line or route—infrastructure projects, such as roads, transmission lines and bridges. The rest were for irrigation and defence projects.
As with the 2020 diversions, another LIFE analysis of 2019 diversions, also released in August 2020, revealed that no proposal approved was backed with reasons—as they are supposed to be—on how the diversion would benefit wildlife.
In 2019, only one proposal among 68 was rejected and 87% of diversions were towards linear projects. Diversions include areas in Thane Creek Flamingo Sanctuary and Bhagwan Mahavir Sanctuary in Goa.
Illegal diversions like this are not a new phenomenon. “We [non-governmental members of the NBWL] had raised these issues way back in 2010,” said Bhargav.
“This [diversions not in accordance with WLPA] has always been the case because people believe that since it is happening, it is legal,” said Ritwick Dutta, an environmental lawyer and founder and managing trustee at LIFE.
The Wildlife Board: Working Like It Should Not
Members of the NBWL hold office for not more than three years, according to rule 3(2) of The National Board for Wildlife Rules, 2003. The NBWL was reconstituted in September, 2014, but since then the Board has not met even once, although it is supposed to meet once a year.
Instead, the NBWL’s powers have since been exercised by a smaller body called the Standing Committee, which was reconstituted in July 2014 and has since taken over the NBWL’s work, in particular, according clearances to projects within PAs.
Dutta said the WLPA “does not permit a situation where the Board never meets and all its functions are taken over by the Standing Committee”.
It’s a case of “the tail wagging the dog,” said Bhargav, the former NBWL member, who pointed out that if the NBWL had not met since 2014 it could not exercise “general superintendence” over the Standing Committee. “With the NBWL rendered defunct, the Standing Committee is operating independently,” Bhargav added.
In essence, the Standing Committee is acting without the authority of WLPA, its parent statute.
As it is constituted now, the Standing Committee lacks sufficient representation from non-governmental organisations and independent ecologists. On 29 September, we sought comment from R Sukumar, an elephant expert at the Indian Institute of Science (IISc), Bengaluru, and one of four non-government members on the Standing Committee. He did not respond. If he does, we will update this story.
Since its reconstitution in July 2014, the Standing Committee of the National Board for Wildlife is chaired by the Minister, ministry of environment, forests and climate change (MoEFCC). The Wildlife Preservation Officer (Additional Director General Forest (Wildlife), MoEFCC is its Secretary. Other members include:
Director General Forest & Special Secretary, MoEFCC
Director, Wildlife Institute of India, Dehradun
Nominee of GEER Foundation
Prof R Sukumar, Indian Institute of Science (IISc), Bengaluru
Dr H S Singh, Gandhinagar; A Representative of State of Andhra Pradesh
The Secretary, National Tiger Conservation Authority is a special invitee to the Standing Committee of the NBWL.
The NBWL must consist of five persons to represent non-governmental organisations, and 10 persons from amongst eminent conservationists, ecologists and environmentalists, according to section 5A of WLPA.
But “what’s the point if the Standing Committee which [effectively] has all the powers has no proper representation from independent civil society?” asked Dutta.
The presence of a trust, the Gujarat Ecological and Educational Research (GEER) Foundation on the Board does not independently represent the voices of civil society because “GEER Foundation was set up by the Gujarat Forest and Environment Department and is governed by a Board of Governors chaired by the Gujarat Chief Minister”, said the LIFE report, which noted that a majority of the GEER Foundation members were state government officials.
As for IISc, its funding agencies are mainly governmental bodies.
The Standing Committee, formed in 2010 under then environment minister Jairam Ramesh, formerly had independent representatives, such as M D Madhusudan from the Nature Conservation Foundation, a Mysuru-based non-governmental wildlife conservation organisation, and independent conservationists, such as M K Ranjitsinh, PhD, and Bindra.
Decisions taken by the current Standing Committee have also been routinely questioned by former members of NBWL, independent conservationists, civil society and researchers, said Bindra.
“But it seems like there has been no reassessment within members and the [environment] ministry—the appointing authority—about whether the mandate of the Board has been effectively carried out,” said Bindra. “As members of the Standing Committee, we used to raise these issues [about wildlife conservation], but minutes of meetings of the Standing Committee today don’t show detailed discussions and debates about wildlife conservation.”
“I only see projects being cleared,” Bindra added.
The NBWL has 47 members including the chairperson, the Prime Minister, who in February, 2020 said: "For ages, conservation of wildlife and habitat have been a part of our cultural ethos, which encourages compassion and co-existence.”
In December 2014, the MoEFCC quietly amended the National Board for Wild Life Rules, 2003, to say that NBWL members may continue as members beyond three years till the time that successors are nominated. Effectively, it changed Rule 3(2) of the National Board for Wild Life Rules, 2003, which earlier restricted the term of NBWL members to three years.
“If the Board has not met since 2014 and if it has not been reconstituted [in 2017 at expiry of three years] and if the same Standing Committee is continuing to make decisions since 2014, it seems like a cozy, convenient arrangement given the rate at which projects are being cleared,” Bhargav said.
Questions about illegalities and irregularities in the functioning of both NBWL and SC-NBWL were also sent to MOEFCC. This copy will be updated if and when we receive a response.
“What is the object of the Wildlife Protection Act?” asked Bhargav. “Is it to protect wildlife or to clear projects?”
The statement of object of the WLPA says it is “an Act to provide for the protection of wild animals, birds and plants and for matters connected therewith or ancillary or incidental thereto with a view to ensuring the ecological and environmental security of the country.”
(Rishika Pardikar is a freelance journalist based in Bengaluru.)