In May 2014, India ushered in the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP)-led National Democratic Alliance (NDA) government with a thumping majority. While the earlier United Progressive Alliance (UPA) government had been steadily weakening safeguards for India’s environment, forests and wildlife, the NDA carried forward this agenda in an even more aggressive and systematic manner. The ministry of environment, forest and climate change (MoEFCC) shed its fig leaf of a protection agenda, and positioned itself as a ministry tasked with the government’s mission of “ease of doing business”, and in a series of measures diluted and dissolved regulatory regimes – some of which are discussed in the first chapter.
The government’s intent was made clear, by the fact that the “ease of doing business” “was included in a meeting of state environment ministers on environment protection in April 2015”. As part of its achievements, the government was to highlight in May 2015, the high number of clearances given by the NBWL, under the heading of “Wildlife Protection”.
The term of the old board was over, and a new one was constituted in July 2014. In what was clearly a bid to get a pliant board, it was constituted with just three members – as against the mandated fifteen as per the Wildlife (Protection) Act. This matter was taken to the Supreme Court, which issued a notice to the Centre questioning the formation of the NBWL and asked it to put on hold the projects cleared by the board in its first meeting.
Though a full fifteen-member NBWL was then reconstituted, the original three members now made up the standing committee, and would be taking crucial decisions on projects within PAs [Protected Areas]. Of the three, one is a serving forest officer, and another a retired forest officer from Gujarat, Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s home state where he served over two terms as chief minister.
In its very first meeting (August 2014) the committee considered 240 projects, and cleared 133. The then environment minister and chair of the standing committee Prakash Javadekar went on record to say that the ministry was “on autopilot” and “took 130 decisions in a single day”. Speed matters, but the question that begs to be asked is: Why such haste?
Did the “autopilot mode” allow time for debate and deliberations? Did such a tight time frame allow for judicious decisions on matters that can endanger rare species and our last wildernesses?
In just seven meetings the board approved 301 projects, while 260 projects were given the nod in seventeen meetings of the five years of UPA rule.
Javadekar was also to say that “no compromise has been made in a single case. We are protecting the environment. Our philosophy is development without destruction.”
How, for instance, is a road cutting the most pristine part of Dudhwa Tiger Reserve, or the expansion of a highway and a railway line through the corridor connecting Kanha and Pench Tiger Reserves or felling 325 hectares of pristine forests and thousands of trees to make way for a dam, not destructive?
Many of the projects cleared were in crucial wildlife areas, including within national parks, tiger reserves and elephant corridors. In the 34th meeting of the NBWL, seventeen projects inside PAs were green-lit. As part of its analysis on “environmental governance” of two years of the NDA government, the Delhi-based Centre for Science and Environment showed that the NBWL’s standing committee rate of rejection since May 2014 was lower than 1 per cent (it was bad enough before at 12 per cent between 2009–2014!). It cleared 301 projects, deferred 105 and rejected only four projects seeking forest land inside PAs and in ESZs around PAs.
The damaging projects that the committee allowed are too numerous to list but among those cleared included a river linking project that would drown, disembowel and split Panna Tiger Reserve; a road through Kutch Wildlife Sanctuary that would endanger the flamingos’ only nesting site in India; housing colonies and offices in Dudhwa Tiger Reserve, and the controversial hydro project near Fambong Lho Wildlife Sanctuary and the Khangchendzonga National Park – now a World Heritage Site in Arunachal – to name a few. Also to get a nod was the missile-firing testing system on the ecologically fragile Tillanchong island. The Nicobar megapodes are poised to lose their only sanctuary.
The committee’s non-official members seem to be mute spectators to this destruction. In its 34th meeting, it cleared three projects in critical elephant corridors. One of these was an extension of the notorious Sevoke-Rangpo “killer track” through the Mahananda Wildlife Sanctuary in North Bengal. Over fifty elephants have been killed on this track between 2004–2015.
In September 2010, seven elephants were mowed down by a speeding train, as they tried to save a calf that got stuck in the line. Raman Sukumar, a member of the standing committee, and noted elephant expert, explained that “there is hardly any elephant habitat after Sevoke”, thus paving the path for its approval. Oddly, in a report co-authored by Sukumar, this railway line is cited as an elephant corridor.
The standing committee cleared projects that had been earlier rejected, presumably because their impact on wildlife would be devastating, and irrevocable.
There was rarely any additional input, information or further scrutiny to explain the basis of why the stance had been reversed. For instance, it approved of widening of National Highway 17 through the Karnala Wildlife Sanctuary in Maharashtra even though it had been rejected twice before. The sanctuary is small, with a high biodiversity value – and importantly, there were alternate routes available. The current standing committee had its own inexplicable logic to justify granting approval. The committee in its infinite wisdom reasoned that the road-widening will smoothen traffic, reduce foul emissions from recurring traffic jams, and thus benefit birds and other wildlife!
What’s also trending is to ask for a site inspection after granting the clearance. The ERC Journal lists six projects – in the 34th meeting – where site inspection visits were ordered after the clearance was already granted. The very idea of a site visit is to take a considered decision based on a detailed and thorough scrutiny, after ascertaining facts from the ground. A site visit post the decision is a facade, taking away the possibility of rejection if ground surveys indicate detrimental wildlife impacts.
It waived conditions it had set earlier, indicating a lenient attitude, “prioritising the convenience of the project proponents, over their mandate to assess proposals in conformity with the law”. In its 35th meeting, it waived an earlier condition that restricted drilling operation at night-time. This was for construction of a gas processing plant near Assam’s Dehing Patkai Wildlife Sanctuary, and an important elephant area. It would give animals of the forest no respite from the constant disturbance and din of drilling and construction.
The NBWL had also asked the National Highway Authority of India (NHAI) to abide by the mitigation plans proposed by the National Tiger Conservation Authority and Wildlife Institute of India for the highway, NH7, that cuts through one of India’s most critical tiger corridors connecting Kanha and Pench Tiger Reserves in Central India. These mitigation plans allowed for a series of underpasses, elevated expressways and underground tunnels at crucial points to allow passage to tigers, leopards and other wildlife. NHAI refused to do so and the standing committee agreed that the mitigation plans would be reviewed, thus relaxing its earlier stance.
Conservation policy decisions taken by previous boards were also dismissed. For instance, the guidelines and rules painstakingly drafted by the earlier committee to put in place processes to ensure that decision-making was informed, judicious and transparent were dismissed. Further reforms were expected in the clearance process, and therefore, it was decided that the matter would be dropped.
The objective now was to “make clearance process more efficient”. A fundamental point missed is that the objective here is not clearance, but regulation.
The National Board “for wildlife” days seem to be well and truly over. It’s time to redefine its mandate, in the same manner that the MoEFCC has apparently found its true calling in subverting its conservation mandate to accommodate the growth agenda.
It could be more appropriately known as India’s Notional Board for Wildlife.
Excerpted with permission from The Vanishing: India’s Wildlife Crisis, Prerna Singh Bindra, Viking, Penguin Random House India.