The NBWL looks after our wildlife by clearing upwards of 40 projects in just over two hours
Adieu, Panthera Tigris, courtesy NBWL
Not so long ago, Jairam Ramesh and his Ministry of Environment and Forests were being pilloried by industrialists and the business establishment while being cheered by environmentalists. Finally, it seemed, there was someone unafraid of consequences and determined to do what his portfolio demands. There was action on the Niyamgiri issue, on POSCO, on mining near forest areas, on tiger conservation, on Adarsh and Lavasa and, briefly, even Jaitapur. Business satraps howled that he was choking development and consigning India to perennial poverty. The environmental lobby retaliated, repeatedly pointing out that savaging the environment could not possibly lead to ‘development’.
Ramesh is undoubtedly still free of taint and there are no questions about his personal integrity. But his actions, often flying well below radar, tell another story: of a ministry that is hobbled by money pressures from other quarters, of a man under severe pressure, of a ministry that has repeatedly failed its remit. A few days ago, students from the Tata Institute of Social Sciences boycotted Ramesh when he came to their campus to deliver the convocation address. They were protesting his intransigence on Jaitapur, refusing, despite Fukushima and every manner of warning about the plant, the technology, the shoddy EIAs and the inevitable environmental damage, to revisit the environmental clearance for that misbegotten catastrophe-in-waiting. They might well have expanded the range of their protests: Ramesh’s ministry has cleared the controversial POSCO project in Orissa, inviting international condemnation. In a report that is perhaps the more scathing for its restrained language, the Guardian demonstrated how Ramesh’s ministry has rejected just six projects since he took charge in 2009. The MOEF has a nearly 95% clearance rate, holding back only a few proposals for further review. Ramesh has always spoken about ‘striking a balance’ and it is true that even on issues like POSCO he has insisted on the imposition of additional conditions, and ensured that there is more transparency now than before (the MOEF website has plenty of information that was till now kept out). But this is smoke and mirrors. The truth is far more sinister.
The working of the Standing Committee of the National Board for Wildlife is a grim illustration of how our environment is being railroaded. Wildlife and old-growth forests are the two areas that must have a hands-off policy. The NBWL thinks otherwise. At its 22nd meeting 25 April 2011 in New Delhi, its overstuffed Standing Committee—40 people, 28 of them invitees—considered roughly 70 items. A very large number of proposals were received only three days before, on 22 April, leaving no time to study documents or make any kind of informed decision. 39 proposals were listed under the agenda caption of “any other item with the permission of the Chair”, typically a residuary agenda item meant for routine, non-controversial matters. Non-government sitting members (some are reputed conservationists and environmentalists) protested at this surreptitious sneaking in of major proposals. They were ignored.
What were these items? A rough sample: destroying 52 acres of forests in the Hazaribagh Wildlife Sanctuary for the widening of NH33; an omnibus proposal to ‘repair’ and ‘maintain’ existing National Highway roads through national parks and sanctuaries in Madhya Pradesh; lift irrigation projects in the Chambal Sanctuary; drawing of underground water from the Son Gharial Sanctuary; installing a ropeway in the Ralamandal Sanctuary in MP; upgrading the 2-lane highway through the Kanha National Park; putting electrical transmission lines through the Mt Abu Wildlife Sanctuary; building a dam on the Parvan river involving the Shergarh Sanctuary in Rajasthan (this will submerege 82 sq kms of the sanctuary, destroy nearly 200,000 trees and, in its recommendation to divert water from the Chambal River is directly contrary to the recommendations of the Wildlife Institute of India); destroying 16 ha of forest in the Keladevi Sanctuary; allowing Idea Cellular to lay a fibre optic cable through the Sawai Mansingh Wildlife Sanctuary; and more. The ‘regular’ agenda items including the denotification of part of the Trikuta Wildlife Sanctuary in J&K and 14 ha of the Radhanagri Sanctuary, diverting 7 ha of forest for a ropeway to the Ambaji Temple in the Girnar Wildlife Sanctuary (proposed by a private operator, this is the death knell of the critically endangered long-billed vulture) and and the construction of roads in the Dampa Tiger Reserve in Mizoram.
Most of these projects were cleared. The meeting lasted just over two hours. It was chaired by Jairam Ramesh.
Something is very, very wrong here. Everything points to a determined assault on that most fragile aspect of our environment: our wildlife and its habitat. Particularly worrying are the number of projects proposed in, around and through National Parks and Sanctuaries. These are legally designated areas of wildlife and habitat protection under the Wildlife (Protection) Act of 1972. The law sets standards of what can and cannot be done in these areas, reflecting a wider public policy. This violation of an environmental law, in letter and spirit, is being actively encouraged, by the very body that is supposed to protect our sanctuaries and national parks.
Every one of these proposals violates the ‘precautionary principle’, a legal rule that requires ‘informed prudence’, the anticipation of environmental harm and loss. Project proponents must, in the face of scientific uncertainty, establish that their proposals are environmentally benign. The precautionary principle has been with us at least since 1982 when the UN General Assembly adopted it and is part of an international treaty since the Rio Earth Summit of 1992. In every single proposal before the NBWL this principle has been abandoned in favour of ‘necessity’, an altogether more dubious standard with no foundation in environmental law.
The NBWL, when conservationists of the calibre of Salim Ali, Kailash Sankhala and others served on it, was instrumental in framing strong strategies for wildlife conservation. On Jairam Ramesh’s watch it has become a farce, and the non-government representatives, though illustrious and commmitted in their own right, are reduced to putting in dissents. Ramesh’s statement that he has been under pressure to overlook environmental violations and clear projects is unconvincing. He, and those who pull his strings, are answerable for the continuing rape of our wildlife and its habitat. Protecting wildlife and wilderness is not just desirable. It is essential. To allow their destruction is to threaten our future.
Not so long ago, Jairam Ramesh and his Ministry of Environment and Forests were being pilloried by industrialists and the business establishment while being cheered by environmentalists. Finally, it seemed, there was someone unafraid of consequences and determined to do what his portfolio demands. There was action on the Niyamgiri issue, on POSCO, on mining near forest areas, on tiger conservation, on Adarsh and Lavasa and, briefly, even Jaitapur. Business satraps howled that he was choking development and consigning India to perennial poverty. The environmental lobby retaliated, repeatedly pointing out that savaging the environment could not possibly lead to 'development'.