Bengaluru: Conflict of interest and lack of discernible expertise.
These are the characteristics of organisations responsible for the preservation of India’s threatened wildlife and their diminishing habitat, such as national and state boards for wildlife and environment appraisal committees, and, at the highest levels, by national and state-level environment ministries.
These organisations are supposed to act as checks and balances against executive power if it is deployed against environmental interests, said experts. Instead, they are increasingly filled with members whose interests often lie in areas they are meant to scrutinise.
Between 2014-15 and 2018-19, around 72,000 ha of forest land has been approved for diversion towards projects like mining and infrastructure. Similarly, in 2019, over 9,000 ha of forest land was approved for diversion, 43% of which comprises wildlife habitats like sanctuaries and national parks.
Consider these examples:
In Karnataka, the wildlife advisory board boasts the CEO of a mining company, a politician’s son and Anand Singh, the state’s forest minister, who has mining interests
A member of the National Board for Wildlife (NBWL) is a trustee of a wildlife NGO funded by fossil fuel companies. He is also the author of an environment assessment report for the expansion of a railway line in Goa, cleared by the NWBL on which he serves
The national Expert Appraisal Committee for River Valley and Hydroelectric Projects is headed by an electronic systems engineer. One member of the committee previously headed the National Hydroelectric Power Corporation (NHPC), a public sector hydropower company whose proposals for hydropower projects are assessed by the same committee.
The national Expert Appraisal Committee for Thermal Power and Coal Mining Projects is headed by a person who is currently on the board of a coal mining company, which also operates thermal plants. The person was also former chairman and managing director of a manganese-ore company.
Prakash Javadekar, union environment minister, who also chairs the NWBL, is also the minister of heavy industries
Karnataka, a state comprising rainforests, woodland savannahs, coasts with corals and estuaries with mangroves, flanked by the hills of the Western Ghats and the Arabian sea, particularly reveals conflicts of interests and lack of expertise among its wildlife appraisers.
In October 2020, the Karnataka government reconstituted the Karnataka State Board for Wildlife (SBWL). According to section 8 of the Wildlife Protection Act (WPLA), 1972, the parent statute, the SBWL is meant to assist the state government in protecting wildlife by advising the government about, among other things, selection and management of protected areas and formulating wildlife conservation policies.
But the recent reconstitution removed members with wildlife expertise: senior scientist with the Nature Conservation Foundation, Sanjay Gubbi; and elephant expert and member of the Asian Elephant Specialist Group of the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN), Ajai Desai.
Instead the government included Alok Vishwanath, son of a member of the Karnataka legislative assembly and retained Dinesh Singhi, chief executive officer and managing director of Bharat Mines and Minerals, a soapstone mining and processing company. Other appointees include Vinodkumar B Naik, a journalist with Kannada Prabha, a newspaper, and Suvarna News, a Kannada news channel, and Joseph Hoover, a journalist and activist.
Section 6 of the WLPA says the SBWL should consist of ten persons “from amongst eminent conservationists, ecologists and environmentalists”. None of the new appointees possess any discernible wildlife expertise.
The Forest Minister Who Profits From Mining
It would appear that Singh, Karnataka’s forest minister, should be a natural choice for the state wildlife board, of which he is an automatic, or ex-officio member, by nature of his job.
Ajai Mishra, Karnataka’s Chief Wildlife Warden, who also serves as member secretary on the state wildlife board, declined to comment on concerns about lack of expertise and conflict of interest with regard to the recent reconstitution.
In November, Article-14 also sent questionnaires about concerns about lack of expertise and conflict of interest in the current state wildlife board to Chief Minister B S Yediyurappa, who is also chairperson of the Board, and various officials in the forest, environment and ecology department. We will update this story if and when they respond.
“The reconstitution [of the Karnataka SBWL] is very depressing,” said B K Singh, Karnataka’s former Principal Chief Conservator of Forests. He said the reconstitution was done because the state government “wants to clear ill-conceived projects like Hubballi-Ankola and [the Sharavathi] Pumped Storage Project, and if there are [wildlife] experts, these projects will not be approved”.
The Hubballi-Ankola project is a 168-km rail line that threatens lush forests in the Western Ghats, a chain of low mountains older than the Himalayas and inscribed in 2012 on a World Heritage List. In July, 2020, Article 14reported how wildlife laws were broken to clear the railway line through the Western Ghats in Karnataka. The minutes of Karnataka SBWL meetings reveal that Gubbi and Desai opposed the Hubballi-Ankola project; both were removed from the Board.
The Sharavathi Pumped Storage Project is a 2,000 MW hydropower project that threatens the rich biodiversity in the Western Ghats, one of the world’s eight "hottest hotspots" of biodiversity, especially since it entails destruction of the Sharavathi Valley Lion-tailed Macaque Sanctuary—one of the last existing habitats of an endangered primate.
Ullas Karanth, director at Centre for Wildlife Studies (CWS), a Bengaluru-based wildlife-research organisation, said lack of expertise on such boards has been a long-standing issue, primarily because the term “expert” is not defined in WLPA. Karanth served as a member of the Karnataka SBWL several times since the 1980s.
Karanth said identification of “genuine wildlife conservationists and scientists” would be possible if relevant PhDs, scientific publications and some track record of standing up to the government were considered in defining “expertise”.
“If you were to form a COVID task force, or a technical group to work on nuclear power, would you get doctors and nuclear engineers or take anyone who simply claims to be interested in the subject [in health and nuclear energy]?” asked Karanth.
Prerna Bindra, member of the NBWL between 2010 and 2013 said more than academic expertise, “integrity, consistency and commitment [to wildlife work] and a tenacity to question government policies and decisions if needed” are important.
“Qualifications help but values matter,” said Bindra.
In most cases, said Bindra, those who speak up for wildlife and hold the government accountable are not being appointed to or retained on state wildlife boards or the NBWL.
“Being amenable” is the desired quality, said Bindra.
Conflicts Of Interest In Many Expert Bodies
Issues of lack of expertise and conflict of interest also extend beyond wildlife governance in India and are found in national-level advisory bodies like Expert Appraisal Committees (EACs).
There are various EACs, including for coal mining, coastal regulation zones, river valley and hydroelectric projects and thermal projects.
EACs are meant to evaluate potential impacts of projects and make recommendations to the Ministry of Environment, Forests and Climate Change (MoEFCC), which then clears or rejects them.
Conflicts of interest plague EACs. For instance, the chairperson of the river valley EAC is K Gopakumar, a professor at the department of electronic system engineering at Bangalore’s Indian Institute of Science. He does not appear to have experience or expertise on the environmental and social impacts of hydropower projects, The Wire reported in November, 2020.
A member of the river valley EAC, Balraj Joshi, previously served as chairman and managing director of NHPC.
The EAC for thermal power and coal mining projects is headed by Gururaj P Kundargi, former chairman and managing director of Manganese Ore India Ltd. Kundargi is currently on the board of Nava Bharat Ventures Pvt. Ltd, which owns Zambia’s largest coal-mine concessionaire and operates thermal-power plants in Odisha & Telangana.
The Message From Delhi: Step Aside
Issues of conflict of interest in environmental and wildlife matters are evident at the highest levels of Indian government.
Environment minister Javadekar, as we said, is the minister of heavy industries and the chairman of the NBWL.
“The question here is: when a [environment or wildlife] clearance for a heavy industry comes up [for appraisal], which hat will he [Javadekar] wear?” Bindra asked. What we need, she added, is “a dedicated environment minister.”
Between 2014 and 2020, the MoEFCC under Javadekar approved over 270 projects related to industry and infrastructure “in and around its most protected environments, including biodiversity hotspots and national parks”, IndiaSpend reported in May, 2020.
Over 2019 and the first half of 2020, Article 14 reported in October, the ministry illegally allowed for “development” land more than three times the size of Mumbai’s Nariman Point business district in these “eco-sensitive areas”.
More recently, an intra-office MoEFCC memorandum provided explicit directions to expert appraisal committees to fast track environmental clearances for industrial projects “to cut down the period” of approval, Down To Earth reported in November, 2020.
Even as chair of the NBWL, Javadekar has acted against wildlife interests and in favour of industry.
Article 14 reported how the Standing Committee of the NBWL (SC-NBWL), has usurped powers of the NBWL and illegally sanctioned diversions of protected areas like wildlife sanctuaries and national parks.
Such diversions of protected areas for “development” are illegal because the WLPA prohibits damage, destruction, or diversion of “protected areas” (PAs)—wildlife sanctuaries, national parks, conservation reserves and community reserves—unless it is to improve and better manage wildlife
Conflicts of interest in the NBWL extend beyond the chair.
The Wildlife Board Member Funded By Govt Companies
Raman Sukumar, a member of SC-NBWL also serves as Trustee at Wildlife Trust of India (WTI), a non-governmental wildlife conservation organisation that has received corporate social responsibility (CSR) funding from fossil-fuel companies.
In 2016, for instance, Oil India Limited (OIL), a government-owned company, engaged WTI for CSR activities related to rhino conservation in Assam. The same year, the Oil and Natural Gas Corporation Limited (ONGC), also a state company, worked with WTI for CSR activities in Uttarakhand and Haryana.
Both OIL and ONGC routinely apply for wildlife clearances. These decisions are made by the NBWL.
In another apparent conflict of interest, between 2014-17 Sukumar was engaged as a consultant by the Odisha forest department. According to documents obtained via RTI by Biswajit Mohanty, an Odisha-based wildlife conservationist, Sukumar was paid Rs 50 lakh by the Odisha forest department to undertake studies into Odisha’s elephant habitats.
During this period, Sukumar attended meetings of SC-NBWL, which included deliberations on proposals that would destroy forests, such as limestone mining near Debrigarh Wildlife Sanctuary, removing about 230 sq km of the Satkosia Gorge Wildlife Sanctuary for “rationalization of the boundary of the sanctuary”, and iron-ore mining near the Similipal Tiger Reserve.
ONGC and the Odisha Forest Department are officially listed as WTI’s partners.
According to Rule 6 of the National Board for Wildlife Rules, 2003, "if any member of the National Board or his family member has any interest in a proposal submitted for consideration of the National Board, the member shall disclose the extent of his interest in the proposal”.
Article 14 did not find any such disclosures by Sukumar in the minutes of meetings of the Standing Committee of the NBWL (SC-NBWL)—whether in relation to CSR funding received by WTI or consultancy services provided to Odisha forest department.
“I did not see any conflicts with the work [for the Odisha forest department and as trustee of WTI] I have carried out for the SC-NBWL,” Sukumar told Article-14 in an email response. “My reports to the SC-NBWL have been based on professional considerations only.”
‘Honest, Voluntary Disclosure Of Interest Foremost’
Bindra, the former NBWL member said when she was on the Board, “what we did was disclose interest and voluntarily refrain from decision-making”.
“An honest, voluntary disclosure of interest is first and foremost,” said Ritwick Dutta, an environmental lawyer and founder and managing trustee of the Legal Initiative for Forest and Environment (LIFE), an environmental advocacy.
In deciding on whether interest constitutes conflict of interest, an established principle is “likelihood of bias”, Dutta said. The test is whether there is a reasonable doubt that there could be some bias.
Ideally, both Dutta and Mohanty noted, Sukumar should have disclosed his interest before the NBWL and offered to recuse himself, if the NBWL decided that he has a conflict of interest.
Such a disclosure does not appear to have been made.
In the governance of wildlife in the state of Goa, too, there are concerns of conflict of interest regarding the manner in which Sukumar has served as member of SC-NBWL.
During a nation-wide lockdown early in 2020, SC-NBWL cleared three “developmental projects” for Goa: expanding national highway 4A from two lanes to four, double tracking a railway line and laying of a 400kV transmission line.
These controversial projects, which will cut a swathe through the Western Ghats and fragment wildlife habitats in the Bhagwan Mahavir Wildlife Sanctuary in Goa and the Dandeli-Anashi Tiger Reserve in Karnataka, have set off a storm of protest, as Article 14 reported in November 2020.
The environmental assessment study for the railway line expansion was prepared by Sukumar, along with T.G. Sitharam, another IISc professor. But Sukumar is a member of the SC-NBWL, which cleared the project.
Sukumar said he did not participate in the decision on the railway line.
“During the SC-NBWL meeting [for wildlife clearance for the railway line] I clearly stated that I carried out the biodiversity assessment when the matter came up,” said Sukumar. “ I did not participate further in any decision making. The assignment [of biodiversity assessment] was taken up before I became a member of the SC-NBWL, though it was completed when I was still a member.”
The minutes of the 7 April 2020 SC-NBWL meeting, which cleared the railway and gave what is called a “wildlife clearance”, do not record that Sukumar made such a disclosure and recused himself from decision-making. The minutes record Sukumar among the list of participants.
“Both the Boards [Karnataka SBWL and NBWL] are deprived of experts,” said Singh, the former Karnataka forest official. “What they have are ‘yes men’ who easily clear projects.”
(Rishika Pardikar is a freelance journalist from Bengaluru)