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Business interests supercede environmental interests

By Pankaj Sekhsaria

The government pays only lip service to the concept of sustainable economic development. But serious doubts are being raised about the independence and freedom of the new National Board for Wildlife

When the newly-constituted National Board for Wildlife (NBWL) had its first meeting in October last year, it seemed to have begun on the wrong foot. The prime minister, also chairperson of the board, used the opportunity to say some of the many things that 'should be said'. "We in India ," he stated, "have inherited a unique and rich ecological diversity in the form of forests, grasslands, wetlands, mountains, desert and marine ecosystems. These provide shelter to a large number of fauna and flora that meet the essential needs of the poor and rich as well. Protection of this biodiversity is not only our ethical responsibility. It is also necessary for our sustainable economic development."

Nice words, but when it comes to doing business, his government seems headed in the wrong direction.

One of the matters listed before the board was the diversion of land from the Desert National Park in Rajasthan for exploration by the Oil and Natural Gas Commission (ONGC). Those who expected that the apex body for wildlife in the country would reject this proposal were in for a shock. An earlier committee had suggested that, for this permit, ONGC should pay Rs 5 crore, which would go into a specially created fund for the park's conservation and management. What the incumbent Union minister for environment and forests T R Baalu and the vice-chair of the NBWL ensured was that not only did ONGC get the permission they wanted, but the money they had to deposit was reduced to Rs 2 crore. "Once they (ONGC) strike oil they will be paying for the socio-economic development of the area," he argued, "so why punish ONGC?" Seven items on the eight-item agenda for the meeting that day were apparently "rushed through" without discussion.

This is clearly indicative of the fact that only lip service is being paid to the cause of wildlife conservation and the environment. The ministry of environment and forests (MoEF) in any case is looked upon as no more than an irritant in the commercial and industrial development of the country, or at best as a rubber stamp that will allow everything. And when the individual at the helm of affairs acquiesces, as in the case of the Desert National Park , there is very little left to dispute.

In many ways, the problem started with the constitution of the new NBWL as mandated under the Wild Life (Protection) Amendment Act, 2002. Two prominent and vocal members of the earlier Indian Board for Wildlife (IBWL), Bittu Sahgal, Editor, Sanctuary Asia , and Valmik Thapar, well-known tiger conservationist, were summarily dropped. Prominent conservation organisations like the Bombay Natural History Society (BNHS) and the World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF) too were not given a place on the board.

One of the chief reasons for keeping these individuals and institutions out is said to be their (in particular Bittu Sahgal and the BNHS) opposition to the Lower Subansiri Hydroelectric Project on the Arunachal Pradesh-Assam border. To be built on the Subansiri river, the project will submerge nearly 3,500 hectares of pristine forest that include vital elephant migratory corridors and the habitats of endangered animals like the tiger, leopard, clouded leopard, marbled cat, golden cat, capped langur, serow and slow loris. The procedure adopted for the evaluation of the project, and the eventual clearances that were granted to it by the MoEF in June and July 2003 respectively, prompted Sahgal to send in his dissenting note.

In a subsequent Interlocutary Application (IA) filed in the Godavarman (Forest) case in this matter, conservationist Dr L M Nath pointed out that "...during the deliberations of the meeting of the standing committee of the IBWL, the non-official members were informed that if the Lower Subansiri proposal is not cleared, a reconstituted Indian Board for Wildlife would be able to clear it in six weeks". Vinod Rishi, additional director general (wildlife) in the MoEF was, however, quoted in The Pioneer as saying that the allegations were baseless. But when the new NBWL was indeed constituted, the problem members were not included.

The new board that has now been formed has 47 members. Most of them are senior government functionaries. Only 15 represent the voice of conservation and wildlife preservation from outside the government. Here too, a majority are actually retired government officers. Serious doubts have been expressed about the independence and freedom with which this board will function.

The next important development was the first meeting of the standing committee of the NBWL held on December 5. The standing committee has 12 members, is chaired by the Union minister, MoEF, and has before it an important and sincere-sounding mandate to ensure habitat and wildlife conservation in the country. Surprisingly, however, the agenda notes circulated for the first meeting listed items that were almost exclusively related to the denotification/diversion of protected areas for different kinds of projects. This included, among others, the denotification of nearly half the Askot Musk Deer Sanctuary, and about 15% of the Govind National Park , both in Uttaranchal. The proposal for the Govind National Park neither explained the need for the denotification, nor did it have the mandatory comments on the matter by the chief wildlife warden of the concerned state. This meeting too came a cropper, this time because of procedural matters. While the rules mandate that the agenda items should reach members at least 15 days before the meeting, they were drafted only eight days in advance. When members pointed this out during the meeting, it was Baalu who took cognisance. To his credit he adjourned the meeting and left in a huff.

The next meeting of the standing committee was scheduled for December 24. Before this could happen, however, politics struck. T R Baalu resigned from Vajpayee's government and there were doubts that this meeting of the standing committee too would be adjourned. As things transpired, the meeting was held under the chairmanship of Dr Pradipto Ghosh, secretary, MoEF, and vice-chair of the standing committee.

Reports have already appeared in sections of the press that the denotification of the Askot Musk Deer Sanctuary in Uttaranchal has been approved. What actually happened will, however, be known only once the much-awaited minutes of the meeting become available.

The NBWL has a major responsibility, particularly in light of the ever-increasing pressures on decreasing natural habitats and wildlife populations in the country. The developments of the last few months, however, inspire very little confidence that it will do, or be allowed to do, the job it was created for. Wildlife conservationists, meanwhile, are waiting eagerly to be proved wrong on this.

(Pankaj Sekhsaria is an environmentalist with Kalpavriksh, a Pune-based environmental action group)

(InfoChange News & Features, January 2004)