By Kanika Katyal:
A hurried, thoughtless and preposterous decision from the Modi government has once again put all the promises of progress to doubt. While there have been no signs of “acche din” for humans, politics has now penetrated into the sacred arena of the environment. The flora and fauna of a country are a mark of its rich heritage.Â Tampering with regulations will not only adversely affect the environment but also lead to larger repercussions for us.
The Narendra Modi government has approved the National Board for Wildlife (NBWL), which, according to experts, has flouted the norms laid down in the Wildlife Protection Act.
The Wildlife Protection (Amendment) Act 2002 clearly states in its Section 5(A) that it must have five persons representing non-governmental organizations to be nominated by the Centre and ten individuals to be nominated by the central government from among eminent conservationists, ecologists and environmentalists.
But, the new board only has two individual members and there is no representation from the NGOs. The Centre has inducted three members on the board–H S Singh, a retired forest officer of Gujarat cadre, Raman Sukumar, an elephant expert from Bangalore and in the name of non-government institutions, it has got a Gujarat government body called Gujarat Ecological Education and Research(GEER) Foundation.
Powers Of The Standing Committee
If the right to a clean environment is a human right, then the protection of the natural resources is as much our duty. So, what makes this issue a matter of urgent and supreme concern for us?
1. The Greed Breed : Misplaced Motives
A senior environment ministry official recently announced the environment ministry’s ‘100 day plan’ which will focus on:
a) Faster green clearances to mega infrastructure projects.
b) Reducing green clearances pendency.
Decisions such as these clearly reflect the ideological framework. For the current committee, building broad roads, constructing dams and digging more coal are more vital for the country’s progress. While in fact, the existing forests need to be conserved and cultivated proportionately. Show me a newly constructed highway which has a lining of full grown trees? The exploitative nature of man here achieves threshold.
Sustainable development is the need of the hour. While developmental projects are important, they should not be carried out at the cost of the environment and wildlife.
2. The Crooked Code
Word to the wise, doesn’t the decision smell of intense lobbying and bureaucracy?
The Gujarat chief minister, currently Anandiben Patel, is the head of the board of governors of the GEER. Compromising the eligibility criteria is a clear indication of intentions of govt to expedite the clearance of projects from NBWL. Without the experts, will this board solve the purpose? The move appears arbitrary. Playing with rules is not acceptable, especially in the case of environment.
3. Alibi Check
A former member of the standing committee of NBWL, who didn’t want to be named, said that earlier there were transparency and checks and balances while clearing any development projects in and around the forest areas,Â “But, this move will surely jeopardize the process of protecting forests in the country,” he said.
The presence of retired officials in the committee suggests that it was deliberately constituted so that the officials remain pliable to official orders. The decision is an autocratic rule on the part of the government.
4. Herculean Feat
With about 200 projects pending for clearance from the Board, having government or quasi-government officials on board would be able to make life easier for the government as compared to very vocal or eminent conservationists on board. The efficiency of the quorum is definitely under question.
Some of the major cases pending before the board
– Coal blocks in and around central Indian tiger reserves such as Pench and Tadoba.
– Hydroelectric projects in Northeast India.
– Highway and road projects through several wildlife sanctuaries and national parks.
– Iron ore mining in Chhattisgarh and Jharkhand in elephant areas.
– Diversion of forest land from the Trishna Wildlife Sanctuary for construction of a new railway line between Agartala and Sabroom (Tripura).
5. Say No to Discussion !
A wildlife expert who had served on the standing committee said: “The non-officials on the Board are critical to carry out a good and impartial review of projects that come indiscriminately from states and often do not go through any scrutiny at the Centre either. It is unfortunate if the government wants to push decisions through a pliable Wildlife Board.”
Disagreements between the government and the non-government wildlife experts in the past has led to either alteration in projects on some occasions and also put several others on hold.
The ‘Flamingo City’ case serves as a prime example.
Asia’s largest flamingo breeding ground, the famed ‘Flamingo City’ in Kutch Wildlife Sanctuary in the western Indian state of Gujarat, was in imminent danger from a proposed massive road construction project. While the project proponent claimed that the road was meant to facilitate mobility for the Border Security Force (BSF), it was clear the project was nothing but a cover for promoting and expanding tourism in the region.
In September 2011, a 3-member expert team from the National Board for Wildlife (NBWL), assessed the potential ecological impacts of the project.
Their recommendation was the rejection of the road proposal. To quote from their site visit report, “the team was of the considered opinion that if the proposed road is allowed to be constructed, it would in all probability result in the abandonment of this breeding site and thus India would lose the only breeding site of flamingos, which in turn could spell doom to the population of these birds in the Indian Subcontinent.”
The result of the strong opposition expressed by the expert team, comprising of non-government officials as well forced the MOEF Committee to reject the project. The project was rejected on grounds that it was having a serious impact on the wildlife of the fragile Kutch region, particularly the nesting site of flamingos.
6. So much for Decentralization?
Decentralization, or power transfer, occurs when specific stakeholder groups, rather than government officials, are given the right to collect revenues and decide how they will be spent. Such autonomy is the key to the strength of the joint forest management areas in India. This decentralization of power has had promising results in terms of both forest protection and local people’s willingness to participate in communal forest management and develop their management capacities.
In a country like India with its diversified regions and their heterogeneous demands, the concept of participation is essential for development projects. Even today, mainstream development projects often fail to meet their objectives and a lack of participation is the reason. Too many projects are designed and implemented by the government without consultation or cooperation with the people whose lives they affected. This is where the role of the non-government leaders becomes decisive.
The NGO’s help bridge the gap between the government objectives and the local expectations. They combine the technological know-how and expertise required at the administrative level with the demands of the local situation. The environment experts describe and discuss the common characteristics of health system functioning in the given socio-economic, socio-cultural, political, environmental protection and social services to protection of environment.
The action of the NBWL hence emerges as not only hurried and thoughtless but also preposterous. A dearth of qualified professionals would not only put the management capacities into doubt but also raises serious questions about the government’s responsiveness towards our natural heritage. The committee shouldn’t work towards churning out another set of arm-chair pundits.
Instead, the fundamental objective of such an institution, in charge of the flora and fauna of the country is to act as catalyst in bringing about local and national initiative and community participation in overall improvement in quality of life.