Environment

STANDING COMMITTEE OF NATIONAL BOARD OF WILDLIFE REDUCED TO A CLEARING HOUSE

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Meera Bhardwaj

Greens call for review of “Wildlife Clearances” given virtually to a slew of projects recently in 11 states by the Standing Committee of National Board of Wildlife [SCNBWL].

The clearance for many a linear infrastructure projects, mining, quarrying, hydroelectric projects in wildlife areas by the Standing Committee on April 7 has raised many questions of irregularities, violation of WPA as also the chairman’s efforts to roughshod over the opinion of members especially experts. A meeting was held through video conferencing wherein it became difficult for members to either understand or follow such complicated proposals but the proposals were cleared in a jiffy.

Each of the project proposal that includes linear structures like roads, highways, power transmission lines are complicated requiring detailed discussion, site visit, impact assessments and looking up of maps and graphs while the Union Environment Minister pushed the approvals hastily. The experts were left staring as they did not even get an opportunity to discuss and put up queries to the concerned officials.

HASTY APPROVALS

On April 7th afternoon, Union Minister of Environment and Forests Prakash Javadekar who is the chairman of the standing committee said on twitter, “I chaired the meeting of standing committee of NBWL today through VC and approved wildlife clearances for a number of development project proposals submitted by 11 states. We approved two infrastructure proposals related to laying of power transmission lines and construction of highway in Goa state which will give boost to tourism development in state……”

Now why is this Minister concerned about tourism development in forests when he is solely responsible for protection of forests? “The announcement of approvals on Twitter smacks of arrogance and lack of sensitivity on such issues. The Union Minister seems to have forgotten that his sole and whole responsibility as MoEF&CC is protection of forests and wildlife and his duties does not include clearance of forests in India,” says a worried activist S H Sahadev from the Sahayadri area.

Activist Sundar Muthanna adds, “The way the minister announced the approvals with all glee while the whole world is grappling with the crisis of Covid-19 is unbelievable. Even as scientific studies have clearly established that diversion of wildlife habitat/clearance of forests and challenges for biodiversity turns them into disease hotspots – the minister still went on to approve linear and hydroelectric projects inside protected areas and that too in Western Ghats. As it is, rail and road links will kill River Cauvery in Kodagu and make the district more vulnerable to landslides and floods.”

STANDING COMMITTEE

Now coming to the issue of Standing Committee itself – this has become more important than the NBWL and has literally usurped the job of the board. The latter is in a state of limbo having failed to hold even a single meeting since 2014. Looking at the membership of the Standing Committee – it has been reduced to three experts and even if one of them gives his approval, the project is cleared. The rest of the members are green officials and so there is no hurdles for clearances. In fact, today the Standing Committee is a sham as it has been set up only for easy and fast clearances.

Presently, the Standing committee has three experts from outside – Dr H S Singh, R Sukumar and Dr R D Khamboj while the rest five include union minister Prakash Javadekar, the chairman, Babul Supriyo, the Vice Chairman and the rest three officials. However, the committee operates independently with none of its decisions ratified by the NBWL.

As per WPA, the Standing Committee shall consist of the Vice Chairperson, the member secretary and not more than 10 members to be nominated by the former from the members of the NBWL. Now even the 10 persons to be nominated to the NBWL by central government should be amongst eminent conservationists, ecologists and environmentalists. And another five NGOs should be nominated to the NBWL as members who are working in the field of wildlife conservation. However, the NDA government has watered down this requirement and conveniently reduced the outside expert membership from 10 to three now and also reduced the NGO membership.

Praveen Bhargav, Wildlife First, Former Member, National Board for Wildlife states, “The National Board for Wildlife (NBWL) is the Apex statutory committee chaired by the Prime Minister, with a specific mandate to promote conservation of wildlife and Protected Areas (PAs). The Wildlife Act specifies that the NBWL may, in its discretion, constitute a Standing Committee consisting of 10 members. Shockingly, the full NBWL has never been convened since 2014. The travesty is that the Standing Committee has assumed all the powers of the NBWL on the basis of a notification which is legally untenable. Even the stipulated “general superintendence, direction and control of the NBWL” is non-existent. This self-granted autonomy not only makes mockery of good governance, but also has serious negative consequences for wildlife conservation.”

KEY PERFORMANCE INDICATORS

Recently, crucial decisions were taken by the Union Minister with nobody to contest the procedure itself. Being a Union Minister, Javadekar is supposed to follow Key Performance Indicators adopted by the NDA government and that he can do it only by increasing protected areas and protecting existing forests and not become a party to clearing it. It is disheartening to note that NBWL, a policy making body has today become defunct while the Standing Committee has become a usurper and is clearing right and left liner structures in PA and ESZ area.

Akhilesh Chipli, naturalist and activist says, “The key objectives (key performance indicators) of the minister of Forest & Wildlife should be to increase natural forest cover, increase in protected area network and connectivity, increase wildlife populations with enhanced law enforcement. But sadly ‘clearance of development projects’ has become the single point agenda of this Minister. On one side, the PM is appealing to everyone to unite against Covid-19 while this Minister is pushing the society to brink and exposing them to more such pandemics. During a crisis ridden situation, why has this Minister approved so many projects?”

On April 6, the Minister called for protection of tigers from Covid-19 while the next day itself, he came out with wildlife clearances in 11 states which will have a huge ecological impact on our environment, says Joseph Hoover, United Conservation Movement. “This is Javadekar’s doublespeak. He is determined to destroy wildlife habitats. If the PM is talking about preserving our biodiversity – does Javadekar really care what Modi means? Even the Cornonavirus pandemic has not deterred him from destroying our fragile ecosystem…..”

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