India’s most controversial rail project – the Hubballi-Ankola Rail Line Project was quietly approved on 20th March by the Chairperson, Karnataka State Board of Wildlife by completely ignoring the strong objections raised by majority of Board members to reject the project. A perusal of the Minutes of the 14th State Board Meeting clearly reveals how the Special Invitees to the meeting who were stakeholders in this project brought “undue pressure” on the chief minister to override objections and give wildlife clearance.
Right from the 11-14th Wildlife Board meetings, all members have unanimously pleaded with the Chairman for outright rejection. But the special invitees proved to be too strong and powerful for the board members and overturned any rejection of the project. Imagine a board meeting where the voice of the member is silenced and only the special invitee is heard and accepted in toto.
ALL ROUND REJECTIONS
A perusal of the minutes of the 13th and 14th Board Meeting reveal how decisions slowly changed from the 13th and turned for the worse in the 14th meeting. In fact, Ajay Desai, wildlife expert and board member in absentia emailed not to recommend the project. Dinesh Singhi, another member who was absent emailed not to recommend the project.
Other Board members who were present voiced their complete rejection of the project. Wildlife biologist Sanjay Gubbi said it was legally incorrect to take the project as the IISc report was null and void now. Further, it has been rejected by NTCA and the recent landslides and floods in Karnataka and Kerala is an indication that the project should be rejected.
Malleshappa, another member said the project has been rejected twice and why now he questioned? It was not prudent to destroy Western Ghats just for a rail line. While Dr N C Shivaprakash said IISc is not an organization which can recommend wildlife mitigation measures for a biodiversity hotspot region like Western Ghats and so the project should be rejected. The additional chief secretary of forests, ecology and environment said the state forest minister had opined that the project was highly detrimental to forests and Western Ghats and so the project should be dropped. So the ACS requested the Chair to discuss the matter with state forest minister.
The PCCF (Wildlife) and Chief Wildlife Warden and member secretary rejecting the IISc report said it was impractical and no forest officers were involved while preparing the report. They have prepared a report without consulting the chief wildlife warden and also not submitted a report to the forest department.
SPECIAL INVITEES INTEREST
However, three non-wildlife experts and special invitees – Jagdish Shettar, R V Deshpande and chief secretary claimed that IISc report was detailed and the best and still relevant today and so the project should be approved for north Karnataka’s development.
A further perusal of the minutes of the 14th board meeting – copies of which is with Green Minute reveals how the chief minister has approved the project due to pressure from the three invitees. In fact, it is devoid of any reasons and is entirely based on pro-project lobbying of his cabinet colleagues who had ‘no business’ to attend. The Standing Committee of National Board of Wildlife when sending back the proposal to the state board had cautioned the site appraisal committee constituted in its 48th meeting had also rejected the project.
LONE DISSENT VOICE
Even during the 13th meeting when the project was fully rejected by its board members and the chief minister too had agreed for rejection of the project – it was Special Invitee , the Chief Secretary who raised the lone dissent voice. He cited a frivolous reason for approving the project. He stated not once but twice in the meeting the then chief Minister S M Krishna had approved the project in the file.
Now coming to the aspect of invitation extended to the Special Invitees and the reasons for this invitation to a board that only deals with complicated wildlife policies and matters. In fact, it is not permissible under the Karnataka State Board for Wildlife Rules, 2006 to invite non-wildlife experts as special invitees. And if they are invited, they are not supposed to speak on forest and wildlife matters as if they are experts.
However, the 14 th meet saw three special invitees : two ministers – Jagdish Shettar and Shivram Hebbar and Congress MLA R V Deshpande and also the Chief Secretary. All the three special invitees excepting the CS were interested parties/stakeholders and their attendance showed inordinate interest in the project.
Now R V Deshpande – the longest serving Industry Ministry of Karnataka too was invited. The rail project was conceived in 1997-98 when he was the Industry Ministry in the J H Patel Ministry. Further, when he again became the Industry Ministry between 2015-18 he was the one who re-initiated and gave the project a re-birth in 2016.
In the background of this – how can a person with so much interest and vast stake holding be invited to a wildlife board meeting? Added to this, ex forest officials say, “He had prevailed upon the forest department and forest officials who never applied their mind [2016-17] to recommend the project for its approval.”
Now what did the Board members do in the 14th meeting? All through the meeting, the Board members stood united in their opposition and raised objections to a project that had been rejected so many times.
A source said state forest minister Anand Singh also avoided the 14th meeting as he was not in favor of the project and his attendance would have caused great embarrassment to the CM and senior ministers in the event of his disapproval of the project.
Now how many times the Hubballi-Ankola Rail project has been rejected since 2002?
This is a project that has been rejected at every stage by every state and central agency and also the Central Empowered Committee of the Supreme Court since the project was mooted two decades ago. And they include:
· Karnataka Forest department, 2002
· REC, MoEF, 2004
· Forest Advisory Committee, 2004
· MoEF, 2004
· CEC, Supreme Court, 2015
· NTCA, 2018
· Site Appraisal Committee [NTCA, WII, & Wildlife Division] MoEF&CC, 2018
· Karnataka State Board of Wildlife, 9 March, 2020
An Environmental lawyer adds, “In overruling the majority opinion of the Board members of the Karnataka-SBWL, constituted under the Wildlife (Protection) Act, 1972, Chief Minister/ Chairman has acted beyond his jurisdiction as there is no such power conferred to the Chairman of the Board under the Act. Also, it is a settled principle of law that a creature of the statute is bound by the statute”