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    From Tehelka Magazine, Vol 9, Issue 22, Dated 02 June 2012
    CURRENT AFFAIRS  
    FOREST RESERVES

    EXPOSÉ

    MoEF Subverts its own conservation mandate

    Documents acquired through RTI reveal that high-ranking officials in the environment ministry are working against what they should be fighting to protect, says Cara Tejpal

    Tiger reserves are at risk

    Fading green Tiger reserves are at risk

    Photo: Abhinav Srivastava

    THWARTING ITS own mandate, the Ministry of Environment and Forests (MoEF) has decided to remove tiger reserves from the ambit of the National Board for Wildlife (NBWL). If the ministry follows through with this decision the Standing Committee of the NBWL will no longer regulate industrial and mining activities in tiger reserves, as is decreed by the Wildlife (Protection) Act.

    Union Forest Minister Jayanthi Natarajan

    Union Forest Minister Jayanthi Natarajan


    Disturbingly, the MoEF has not made this information public and has instead circulated these changes internally via an office memo. Going a step further, the document also states that proposals for activities in elephant reserves and wildlife corridors need not be placed before the Standing Committee. Without the counsel of independent and expert members of the NBWL, states are now free to clear any number of proposals in crucial wildlife habitats. The motive behind such a decision can only be deduced from understanding the series of events that lead up to it.

    Amid the hue and cry about the verdicts on Vedanta, POSCO and Navi Mumbai, the MoEF released a seemingly innocuous document on its website in March 2011. Titled ‘Guidance document for taking up non-forestry activities in wildlife habitats’, the 12-page note is a guide for project proponents looking to apply for clearance from the Standing Committee. It asserts that, as envisaged by the Wildlife (Protection) Act, all diversion proposals within national parks, wildlife sanctuaries and tiger reserves should only be allowed after the NBWL cleared them. The note also held a pleasant surprise for conservationists.

    Exhibiting deep concern for wildlife, the MoEF explicitly stated for any diversions involving elephant reserves and wildlife corridors (critical for the survival of wide ranging species and the preservation of genetic integrity) to also be referred to the Standing Committee.

    Both elephant reserves and wildlife corridors have been subject to unregulated development and habitat destruction that has led to escalated man-animal conflict situations. The destruction of Uttarakhand’s Gola river corridor has cost 150 people and 40 elephants their lives between 2000 and 2007. The Centre provides huge financial assistance to state governments under the umbrella of Project Elephant for the protection and development of elephant habitats, and yet gives away this very land for commercial projects without reviewing them.

    In order to regulate development and to fruitfully utilise the funds allotted to the cause, the decision to bring all project proposals before the NBWL was well justified. In 2002, the Indian Board for Wildlife ruled that diversion of forest land from critical and ecologically fragile habitats shall not be allowed. The NBWL, which is a statutory board under the Wildlife (Protection) Act, is the only body of the MoEF that can look into diversion of habitats and take scientific and objective decisions on what will cause the least damage to wildlife. Including elephant reserves and wildlife corridors in the guidelines was an appreciable decision.

    By October 2011, Jayanthi Natarajan had taken over the reins of the environment ministry from Jairam Ramesh. A new minister was in office, but old troubles were still brewing. In a series of handwritten exchanges between various officials, the Additional Director General Wildlife, Jagdish Kishwan, hotly disputed the inclusion of elephant reserves and corridors in the guidance document. He wrote: “… However, guidelines issued by the Wildlife Division on the subject have somehow included the elephant reserves and elephant corridors also requiring clearance of the Standing Committee of NBWL. This is often challenged by the IA (Impact Assessment) Division and others, also on the grounds that the guidelines issued by the WL Division have gone beyond what is mandated by the provision of the Wildlife (Protection) Act or Supreme Court orders on the subject. The issue is becoming problematic and contentious.” Natarajan put the problems to bed, and along with the member secretary, National Tiger Conservation Authority (NTCA), called for the “status quo” of the document to be maintained.

    Fast forward to February 2012. The same guidelines are up for review once more, and this time they are revised. The MoEF convened an in-house meeting chaired by the minister and attended by the secretary, Environment and Forests; ADG, Wildlife; IG, Forest Conservation; IG, Wildlife; and Joint secretary, Impact Assessment. Surprisingly, the Director General, Forests & Wildlife was not invited for the meeting. The minutes of this meeting have uncovered some unpleasant truths about environmental decision-making in the country.

    The guidance document on the website has not been updated and the changes have only been circulated internally

    The group decided that projects impacting tiger reserves, elephant reserves and wildlife corridors need not be placed before the standing Committee and diversions can be effected as per the discretion of the ministry’s Environment Division. Furthermore, the ministry has directed the Environment Division to review all projects that were put before the standing Committee between 15 March 2011 and 23 February 2012. In effect, the ministry can now clear land diversion projects (including those already rejected) in tiger reserves, elephant reserves and wildlife corridors without obtaining the Standing Committee’s view.

    The guidance document on the website has not been updated and the changes have only been circulated internally. Till date, the general public and environmentalists are in the dark about the change in procedure and projects can now get easy clearance in ecologically fragile areas.

    Documents available with TEHELKA throw up many uncomfortable questions for the MoEF. Why are the very people who should be fighting to protect our wildlife diluting the sanctity of protected areas? Tiger reserves already come under the purview of the Wildlife (Protection) Act, and as per Section 380(g) of the Act: “No diversion for ecologically unsustainable uses, except in public interest, is permissible in tiger reserves… except with the approval of NBWL, and on advice of the NTCA.”

    When TEHELKA called the office of Jagdish Kishwan, we were informed that he was on tour and were instead directed to IG, Forests, SK Khanduri. “I am not supposed to talk to the media. There are protocols in the ministry to talk about this. Please spare me this, it does not come in my mandate,” he said about the change under the guidance document. Minister of Environment and Forests Jayanthi Natrajan was not available for comment.

    TIME AND again, the MoEF has undermined the powers of the Standing Committee and the NBWL itself has not met since 18 March 2010 when it is, in fact, required to meet once every year. The sequence of events, leading up to the revision of the guidance document, suggests that laws are being manipulated and transparency compromised. The Environment Division is now issuing clearances without incorporating the clause that all cases of diversion of tiger reserves, elephant reserves and wildlife corridors be placed before the Standing Committee. It is also uncertain as to how many previously rejected proposals are back on the table and have already been approved.

    It seems to be a case of the executive undermining the law, and the MoEF’s true motive behind modifying these guidelines is unclear. If the very people in charge of protecting India’s unique natural heritage are prone to disregard laws and squander away our protected areas, what hope is there for the tigers, elephants and myriad other animals that still roam this country? The revised guidelines omit just a sentence from the original document, but it is enough to threaten an already abused ecological system. With the new guidelines in place, the stone crushers, miners and ‘developers’ that follow can’t be more than two steps behind.

    In the face of such damning evidence of insidious decision-making, one can only wonder when the MoEF will stop paying lip service and actually start protecting what is in its charge.

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    From Tehelka Magazine, Vol 9, Issue 22, Dated 02 June 2012
 

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