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Even as India grapples with the coronavirus pandemic, the environment ministry is on a race to give forest and wildlife clearances to a number of major industrial and infrastructure projects.
While meetings of the expert panels were earlier cancelled following the imposition of the nationwide lockdown on March 24, many took place in April and May over videoconferencing.
For projects to get green clearances from the central government's Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change (MoEFCC), it is necessary to get the approval of the expert panels – the National Board for Wildlife (NBWL), the Forest Advisory Committee (FAC) and 10 Expert Appraisal Committees (EAC). Once these panels recommend or reject green clearance of a project, the final decision is taken by the environment ministry, which is rarely overturned.
While the Ministry said that the meetings are being held to clear "proposals for seamless economic growth during COVID-19", environmentalists and experts criticised the move as due to the ongoing coronavirus crisis, affected people are unable to send evidence or representations. In addition, expert panellists cannot do field visits and the laws governing green clearances have no provision to allow video conferencing.
On April 7 alone, at least 30 proposals affecting 15 tiger reserves, sanctuaries, eco-sensitive zones, wildlife corridors, and other forest areas were cleared or discussed over virtual meetings by NBWL and FAC.
On May 12, 291 conservation scientists, academics from premier wildlife research institutes, wildlife biologists, 12 former members of the standing committee of the National Board for Wildlife (NBWL), former affiliates of the Forest Advisory Committee (FAC), and academics from universities such as Columbia, Yale, Michigan, and Cambridge, and non-profit bodies among others, wrote a letter to Union environment minister Prakash Javadekar expressing their concerns on environmental clearances being given to large projects amid the lockdown.
"As our protected areas (only 4% of country's total geographic area) are the country's last remaining wildlife habitats, granting clearance to any project proposed inside them should be the last resort. NBWL needs to check the authenticity of information provided by project proponents which includes status of the forest land, notifications, maps, and orders passed by the courts. The lockdown does not allow fair screening of 40% of major proposals that need site inspection," former NBWL member Kishore Rithe was quoted by Hindustan Times.
State governments have also given the nod for several controversial projects
According to media reports, the National Board for Wild Life (NBWL) which falls under the Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change (MoEFCC) recommended coal mining in a part of an elephant reserve in Assam on April 24.
The NBWL had held a discussion on April 7 regarding a proposal for transferring 98.59 hectares of land from the Saleki Proposed Reserve Forest (PRF) for an open-cast coal mining project by North-Easter Coal Field (NECL) which is a unit of Coal India Limited(CIL). The meeting was chaired by Union Minister for Environment, Forest and Climate change Prakash Javadekar through a video conference.
However, an RTI query by eastern Assam-based environment activist Rohit Choudhury revealed that mining-related work has already begun in 16 hectares of the 41 hectares claimed by CIL to be unbroken. The RTI revealed that NBWL had concealed the ground reality of Saleki PRF, 98.59 hectares of which has been proposed to be diverted for the Tikok open-cast coal mining project.
"...the area of 41.39 ha claimed to be unworked/fresh area has also been broken of which 9 ha was mined and another 7 ha was cleared perhaps for further mining... it is confirmed that as on date the area of the unbroken area stands at approximately 25 ha," reads the site inspection report which was submitted by the regional office of the Environment Ministry four months prior to the NBWL meeting.
Saleki is a part of the Dehing Patkai Elephant Reserve that includes the Dehing Patkai Wildlife Sanctuary covering 111.19 sq km of rainforest and several reserve forests in Sivasagar, Dibrugarh and Tinsukia districts. The move will permit preliminary drilling inside a wildlife sanctuary that is home to endangered lion-tailed macaques and great Indian hornbills.
In a meeting on April 23, the ministry's Forest Advisory Council (FAC) considered an application for survey and exploration of uranium over 83 sq km of forests in Telangana's Amrabad Tiger Reserve.
While the Telangana legislative had decided to not allow the project following protests by environmentalists and local people, an FAC status report showed it was slotted for consideration because the proposal by the Atomic Minerals Directorate for exploration and Research was pending, reported Hindustan Times.
In the meeting, the Telangana government was asked to submit the decision taken by its State Board for Wildlife and further action taken on it.
Early in May, the Maharashtra government requested the Centre to exclude 15% of the area proposed as eco-sensitive area (ESA) in the Western Ghats to allow mining and industrial activities.
Declaring an area as ESA inflicts restrictions on setting up projects like mining, quarrying, thermal power plants, industrial units and construction in the area.
According to a Hindustan Times report, the Union environment ministry had proposed a draft of the ESA in the Western Ghats on October 3, 2019. According to this, 17,340 sq km (2,133 villages) of 56,825 square kilometres spanning six states and covering 37% of the Western Ghats, were in Maharashtra. Till now, the state forest department has excluded 358 of the 2,133 villages from the ESA.
According to a senior forest official, among the villages planned for exclusion are those in the Dodamarg-Sawantwadi forests - a significant elephant and tiger corridor along the Maharashtra-Goa border. The wildlife corridor is home to tigers, leopards, elephants, sloth bears, migratory bird species and the Indian giant squirrel. It connects the Radhanagari Wildlife Sanctuary in Kolhapur in Maharashtra to Bhimgad Wildlife Sanctuary in Karnataka.
Meanwhile, Chhatrapati Sambhaji Raje, Rajya Sabha MP, has written to CM Uddhav Thackeray and Union environment minister Prakash Javadekar to reconsider the setting up red category industries in ESAs in the region.
According to state forest minister Sanjay Rathod, the proposal is yet to get the final nod of the Environment Ministry.
In May, the Karnataka Forest Department gave permission to Karnataka Power Corporation Limited (KPCL) to carry out survey and geo-technical investigation by drilling inside the Sharavathi Valley Lion-tailed Macaque Wildlife Sanctuary. The move came despite massive protests against the proposed 2,000 MW Sharavathi Underground Pumped Storage Project inside the Sharavathi Valley between Shivamogga and Uttara Kannada.
The Standing Committee of National Board for Wildlife had approved the proposal by KPCL seeking permission for the survey on April 7. Following this, the Chief Wildlife Warden of Karnataka granted permission for the survey, subject to stringent conditions.
"To step up efforts to conserve the Lion Tailed Macaque, the sanctuary was recently renamed Sharavathi Valley LTM Sanctuary and its boundaries were redefined. The sanctuary also hosts Myristica swamps, unique freshwater swamp forests that comprise perennial streams and flora networks home to wide range of species of reptiles, birds and amphibians," Akhilesh Chipli, environmentalist, told The Hindu.
"At the time when the focus is on preventing the transmission of virus from humans to wildlife, the Department of Forest and Wildlife has given permission for entry of labourers with machinery to the sanctuary limits," Chipli added.
Besides these, the EAC has also given green clearance to the contentious "expansion and renovation" of the existing Parliament building, under Central Vista Project, at a cost of Rs 922 crore.
Approval was also recommended for maintenance works for a road inside Namdapha Tiger Reserve in Arunachal Pradesh, and construction and commissioning of Lakhwar Multipurpose Project (300 MW) in Dehradun and Tehri Garhwal districts, among other projects. The FAC also deferred its decision on the controversial hydropower project in Dibang Valley in Arunachal Pradesh.Also Read: COVID-19 Lockdown: Environment Takes Backstage As Centre's Focus Shifts To Ease Of Businesses
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