New Delhi: From January to June, a key government decision-making body approved the denotification (deletion), diversion (permitted for projects) or rationalisation (redrawing of boundaries) of over 14,000 hectares (ha) of land that falls under protected areas and tiger habitats, some of which “can be disastrous for wildlife”.
An analysis of decisions made by the National Board for Wildlife (NBWL)’s Standing Committee, the apex decision-making body that evaluates proposals and grants clearances for projects falling within protected areas, revealed that leatherback turtles, saltwater crocodiles, megapodes, tigers and elephants were at risk because of various clearances granted in the five-month period. The NBWL is governed by the Wildlife (Protection) Act.
The standing committee had approved the complete denotification (deletion) of two protected areas in Andaman and Nicobar Islands — Galathea Bay Sanctuary (a nesting site for leatherback turtles) and Megapode Sanctuary — which falls outside the scope of the committee’s powers.
The analysis, released Wednesday, was conducted by the award-winning law and advocacy firm Legal Initiative for Forest and Environment (LIFE).
“It (the Act) does not provide any provision regarding the de-notification of a protected area, and therefore the National Board for Wildlife or the Standing Committee does not possess any statutory power to de-notify any protected area,” it noted.
However, according to Raman Sukumar, a member of the NBWL Standing Committee, certain infrastructure projects invariably require passage through protected areas (PA) and eco-sensitive zones (ESZ).
“The execution of certain linear infrastructure projects such as power transmission lines and improvement of roads inevitably involves passage through a part of a PA or its ESZ. In such cases, the state government attempts to find a route which causes the least disturbance to forest/wildlife even it involves a somewhat circuitous route, though there are limits to this,” Sukumar told ThePrint.
He further noted that the Megapod Sanctuary had already sunk beneath the sea after the tsunami of December 2004.
“As regards the Galathea Bay Sanctuary, the information provided by the ministry was that the final notification orders of the sanctuary (declaring it as a protected area) were never issued and that the initial notification has already elapsed. The Ministry had obtained a legal opinion. However, it was brought to the SC-NBWL for ratification,” Sukumar said.
According to LIFE’s report, of the 62 proposals reviewed by the Standing Committee between January and June, 29 were for diversion of land within protected areas and none of them were rejected.
Consequently, 302.89 hectares (ha) were diverted in wildlife sanctuaries, national parks and conservation reserves.
The Wild Ass Wildlife Sanctuary (Kutch, Gujarat), Kaimur Wildlife Sanctuary (Kaimur, Bihar), and Thein Conservation Reserve (Jammu and Kashmir) stood to lose the most land — 62.1136 ha, 55.447 ha and 51.08 ha, respectively.
Additionally, 386.137 ha of land was approved for diversion from Eco-Sensitive Zones (ESZ), 100 ha of which was forest land. ESZs are not considered protected areas, and so the committee “does not statutorily have explicit jurisdiction to decide for projects” lying in these areas, according to the analysis.
The report also noted that a Supreme Court order says that till states demarcate ESZs, the NBWL is to consider all projects within a 10 kilometer radius of national parks and sanctuaries.
The LIFE analysis further noted that tiger reserves are especially vulnerable to such clearances.
“The contiguity of tiger habitats has severely been affected by approvals for developmental projects over the years which has led to tigers living in isolated Tiger Reserve patches, consequently losing on their connectivity with other areas.”
A total of 780.24 ha of land in tiger reserves have been diverted, according to the report, with Ranthambore Tiger Reserve and Sawai Mansingh WL in Rajasthan (632.406 ha), and Rajaji National Park (122.0758 ha) being the worst-affected reserves.
Apart from the denotification of the two sanctuaries in the Andaman and Nicobar Islands, the land in two sanctuaries — the Salt Water Crocodile Sanctuary in Andaman and Nicobar Islands and Bandh Baretha Sanctuary in Rajasthan — were also rationalised affecting a total of 13,855.784 ha.
“The problem is that land is diverted inside protected and core areas every year. These are inviolate areas for wildlife and when projects come up it creates a hindrance in the habitat. Most diversions are for linear projects which cut through and fragment habitats,” Tanvi Sharma, author of the report, told ThePrint.
“The minute you remove or denotify a protected area, there is no legal obligation left,” Sharma added.
The LIFE report also noted that during the nationwide lockdown in 2020, meetings between the wildlife committee members for deliberations over these projects took place over video call and they often skipped field visits.
“The committee was found recommending such proposals in a rush without conducting site inspections,” said the analysis.
Another major concern flagged by the report is the role of the Wildlife Institute of India, an autonomous institution under the environment ministry.
It is a member of the statutory committee but is also a “proponent” — involved with the party seeking clearance — in at least three projects, causing what the report calls a “conflict of interest”.
“A strategized method of speeding the clearance process has been observed by de-notifying protected areas. Multiple diversions in one protected area also get approved, which is a major cause of concern for the integrity of the protected area,” according to the report.
“The committee is inclined towards promoting infrastructural growth at the cost of great ecological diversity and rich forests in wildlife sanctuaries and national parks,” it added.