The Shameless U-Turn Of The Environment Ministry Under PM Modi

Posted on February 23, 2015 in Environment, Politics

By Anjali Nambissan:

The National Green Tribunal, you may have read, has been heralded for upholding the cause of wildlife conservation overruling the BJP government’s subversive tactics to declaw the Forest (Conservation) Act, 1980. First, the Central government whined about how the forest clearance process is holding up infrastructure and public utilities projects, such as roads and power lines in forest areas. The Union Ministry of Environment, Forests and Climate Change, seemingly took note of this, and issued two communications – one on August 8, 2014, and the other on January 15, 2015 – allowing linear projects, such as roads, power lines, railway tracks and pipelines, and related expansion, to begin felling trees and construction work once they’re given a preliminary in-principal forest clearance.

Linear projects include roads, power lines, highways, bridges, canals and pipelines.
Linear projects include roads, power lines, highways, bridges, canals and pipelines. Picture Credit: Anjali Nambissan

The National Green Tribunal upheld the fact that an in-principle clearance is only the first step in the forest clearance process and does not constitute a go-ahead signal. The MoEF was also instructed to not change laws, willy-nilly. Wildlife biologist Milind Pariwakam, who brought the matter before the NGT, correctly pointed out that if felling trees and construction are carried out before the actual forest clearance is awarded, then there is no point in waiting for the clearance process to finish. The damage is already done.

About face

To me, MoEF’s actions seem to be a strange and shameless U-turn from the draft Guidelines for linear infrastructure intrusions in natural areas: roads and powerlines of the National Board of Wildlife, which is an MoEF body. Acknowledging that roads and power lines in natural areas cause a host of problems not only to the animals, but also to the indigenous people residing in the forests, the guidelines seek to ensure that infrastructural development is undertaken without “ compromising the long-term value of natural areas, their ecosystem services, and imperiling the prospects for more holistic development.” There are specific guidelines, in the document, for roads and power line projects to proceed only after a Social and Environmental Impact Assessment, and in case they are permitted, they cannot cut up closed-canopy forests or old, native trees, amongst other things. The MoEF acknowledges that…

“… roads and powerlines established as linear intrusions in such natural areas, cause habitat loss and fragmentation, spread of invasive alien species, desiccation of vegetation, wind-throw damage to trees in forest areas, increased incidence of fires, animal injury and mortality (e.g., roadkill, electrocution), changes in animal behaviour, increased developmental, tourist and hunting pressures, increase in pollution, garbage, and various disturbances.”

Wildlife behaviour changes with increased intrusions into their habitat.
Wildlife behaviour changes with increased intrusions into their habitat. Picture Credit: Anjali Nambissan

So what’s with these subversive communications, MoEF?

Wildlife on the run

Yes, linear projects, such as roads, canals, highways, power transmission lines, and railway tracks connect far-flung areas and provide other obvious economic benefits. But, they also kill animals living in the forest areas. Some of which are touted to be under protection. Take deers, rhinos, and elephants that are being run over on the notorious NH-37 that runs through the Kaziranga National Park, for example. Earlier this month, the NGT rapped the Assam government’s knuckles on the increasing animal casualties, directing them to submit the figures of 2013 and 2014. Then, there is the deadly NH-209 dubbed a ‘death trap’ for wildlife such as gaur, sloth bears, wildcats, and reptiles in a report submitted to the Karnataka State Forest Department by biologists, last month. NH-209 connects Mysore to Coimbatore through the Sathyamangalam Wildlife Sanctuary and Tiger Reserve.

Power lines: An arrow in a poachers' quiver?
Power lines: An arrow in a poachers’ quiver? Picture Credit: Anjali Nambissan

Power lines killed 61 elephants in Odisha in 2012. And now, poachers have figured out the power of the power lines. Poachers killed 88 wild elephants, rhinos, sambars, and boars by drawing lines from the high-tension power lines running over wildlife sanctuaries and national parks, the central government said in response to a Supreme Court order from November, 2014!

I request the hallowed MoEF to do their job, which is to ensure that our quest for economic development does not wipe out our flora and fauna. Do not make it an environment versus development debate – that environment is going to lose anyway. Because if the environment loses, so do we.