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The board have mercy: how the govt is riding over wildlife protection

Nihar Gokhale | Updated on: 13 February 2017, 3:38 IST

It is said that the world is going through a sixth wave of extinction. What sets it apart from the five others is that it is caused by human activity.

In India, the challenge is no less pertinent. There are 55 species that are critically endangered (nearly extinct), while 310 are endangered, living precariously in protected areas.But bulldozers are waiting at the gates - the pressure of resource-intensive economic growth, of making roads, and mining minerals.

Wildlife as roadblock

It is imperative to ensure that wildlife isn't compromised while taking a call on what goes through and what doesn't. Decisions ought to rest on close scrutiny, and step ahead of merely balancing interests.

In India, this task is being subverted by the NDA government. In the name of clearing what it calls 'roadblocks' in industrial growth, the government has tinkered with the wildlife approval process.

This landed it in hot water with the Supreme Court once, and threatens to do so again.

Protecting wildlife and vetting projects in sensitive areas is supposed to be done by the National Board for Wildlife (NBWL), as per the Wildlife (Protection) Act, 1972. The Prime Minister chairs the board, which is supposed to meet at least once a year.

The NBWL was formed within two months the NDA coming to power, but in reality, Narendra Modi has not called a single meeting since taking office.

Instead, his government has, in the last year, bypassed the Board by delegating its work to a smaller committee, where government officials outnumber outside experts.

Supreme Court rap

It emerges that the government has also cleverly bypassed a Supreme Court order expressing concern.

The trouble began with the formation of the NBWL in July 2014. It had only three non-government members instead of the mandated 10 in the 47-member panel. Most members were largely retired or serving government servants.

The only non-government organisation was, in fact, funded by the Gujarat government and headed by Anandiben Patel, Modi's successor as the state's chief minister.

In India, 55 species are listed as nearly extinct, while 310 are endangered, living in protected areas

Following an outcry, a case was filed in the Supreme Court. The court upheld the claim that the panel was not formed as per law, and stayed the carrying out of its decisions.

The standing committee

But the real scoop lies in the 'standing committee' of the Board. Since the NBWL meets just once a year, a standing committee is formed with 10 of its members. It meets once in three months to clear projects and discuss wildlife policy and is chaired by the environment minister.

Forming a committee is regular practice, every government does it. But the NDA government has used it to cleverly bypass the Supreme Court order.

Based on the court's directions, it reconstituted the NBWL, adding several NGOs and civil society representatives, as per law. But the standing committee has remained the same, and it is this committee that has continued to hold meetings and take decisions.

The committee has already met four times, and considered almost 300 proposals - all this while the actual NBWL never met. This means that adding NGOs and civil society representatives based on the Supreme Court directions has had no effect on the government's actual wildlife-related decisions.

Conservationists up in arms

Activists have cried foul at this. One described it like a parliamentary standing committee passing a law without taking it to Parliament. Others point out that these actions contradict the purpose of a standing committee.

The government notification (under the Wildlife Protection Act), which describes the role of a standing committee, says it's actions are supposed to come under the "general superintendence, direction and control of the NBWL", which is not happening, according to Praveen Bhargav, trustee at Wildlife First and a former member of the NBWL.

The issue has arisen because the committee's decisions are not getting ratified by the NBWL, since it has never met. "Thus, there is no way for the rest of its members, who are not part of the standing committee, to voice their concerns on clearance of projects," Bhargav said.

Sanjay Upadhyay, who had filed the original petition against the lame-duck NBWL, said he is considering filing another case.

Irrespective of legal opinion, the consequences of the government's actions are very real. The standing committee is still making light work of wildlife decisions, many of which have already raised eyebrows.

Deviation from the mandate

An analysis of its latest meeting held on 2 June highlights this. The EIA Resource and Response Centre, a Delhi-based think-tank which analysed the minutes of the meeting, said the meeting indicated "a serious lack of deliberation and [a] deviation from the mandate".

The Centre pointed out that of the 23 projects recommended for clearance in the meeting, many projects had actually been rejected by the previous Board which existed during the UPA regime.

This includes the widening of National Highway 17 through the Karnala Bird Sanctuary, which was rejected twice earlier, since alternate routes that didn't harm the sanctuary were feasible.

But the new committee approved the project saying that the road widening would be beneficial as it would "smoothen the traffic and reduce the foul emissions from recurring traffic jam".

Three projects affecting important elephant corridors, which were kept pending by the earlier committee, were also approved.

23 of the projects recommended for clearance had actually been rejected by the previous Board under the UPA

Other decisions red-flagged by the Centre include six projects in protected areas, where the committee recommended site visits after the granting approval.

Usually, site visits are conducted to understand the location and its impact before clearing a project. It doesn't work the other way around.

"The site inspection and additional information will hence not play any role in the decision of the [standing committee]," the report said.

It also pointed out that the committee appeared to show "an indulgent attitude towards non-compliant project proponents".

No hue and cry

The NBWL has members from civil society and conservation organisations. Even though the Board hasn't met, none of the members have so far spoken out. Conservationists are baffled by this silence.

"We wrote letters, protested in the meetings, and made sure our objections were taken on record. Even if our objections were seldom taken on record, we still put up a fight," said a former member of the NBWL.

"Today we don't hear even a squeak from the members. Everything seems to be passing without any protest."

First published: 11 August 2015, 8:52 IST
Nihar Gokhale @nihargokhale

Nihar is a reporter with Catch, writing about the environment, water, and other public policy matters. He wrote about stock markets for a business daily before pursuing an interdisciplinary Master's degree in environmental and ecological economics. He likes listening to classical, folk and jazz music and dreams of learning to play the saxophone.