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The impending extinction of wildlife committees

Civil society members on India’s most important wildlife conservation committees are mostly rubber stamps, says Ashish Kothari, making these forums so much greenwash for pushing ‘development’ projects that threaten wildlife habitats through

Civil society members on India’s most important wildlife conservation committees now belong to either of two species: ineffective dissenters, or willing rubber stamps. If the recent record of the National Board for Wildlife (NBWL) and the National Tiger Conservation Authority (NTCA) is an indication, the independent watchdog status of its members is in severe danger … and with that, the committees themselves are threatened.

The NBWL has become a forum to greenwash a host of ‘development’ projects that threaten wildlife habitats (though all may not do so), while the NTCA continues to steamroller an authoritarian, suicidal model of conservation ignoring calls from its own members for transparency and due process.

The Notional Board for Wildlife

The latest meeting of the NBWL Standing Committee on April 25 was, by all accounts, a farce. Chaired by the Minister of State for Environment and Forests Jairam Ramesh, it dealt with 59 infrastructure and other projects in/around wildlife habitats in about two hours. That is an average of about two minutes per project. This includes roads, water diversion, mining, power transmission lines, and others. A number of small-scale projects providing essential services (small roads, minor irrigation) to villages cannot be faulted, and indeed would help win friends for conservation. But several were for industrial or commercial purposes, and many were pretty large-scale (eg submergence of 8,167 ha of the Shergarh Wildlife Sanctuary and cutting of over 186,000 trees by Parvan Irrigation Project, Rajasthan).

But the main point here is not that there are lots of destructive projects being allowed in wildlife habitats (that’s a subject for a separate article), but that in such decision-making, there is simply not enough time to go into the pros and cons of projects. Forty-eight of the 59 projects were cleared that day (a few of them ‘in principle’), and four rejected; most of these decisions were based on inadequate information, analysis, and consideration. Only six were deferred for lack of information or continuing assessment. Amazingly, 45 of 59 the projects to be reviewed were in the “Any other item” part of the agenda, added virtually last minute. Documents relating to these were sent to members two days before the meeting (both days being the weekend!), and these too were very inadequate (eg no maps showing the area of impact; in the case of many proposed roads, no information on number of trees to be felled, etc). The notification setting up the Standing Committee states that agenda items must be sent to members at least two weeks in advance. But over the last few meetings, there has been a trend of sending documents just a day or two before. MoEF’s casual treatment of its own rules is shocking.

Some of the non-governmental representatives did try to question this process. But whether it was a general dissent, or specific objections related to the projects under  consideration, the Chair is reported to have brushed them aside citing lack of time. Several members complained that they were not even given time to speak. The only silver lining is that even subsequent dissent notes have been included in the minutes, a healthy precedent that hopefully will continue for NBWL and be introduced for other committees. It is however not clear if the minutes are draft, open for comments from members regarding aspects not accurately reported or missed out.

The NBWL has faced governance problems for years. The full Board meets very infrequently, with most decisions being taken by the Standing Committee (SC). Board members who are not on the SC have complained that they are not involved in most decisions. Members of the SC in turn complain that it has become mostly a forum for clearing ‘development’ projects, rather than one where the country’s most crucial conservation issues can be discussed and acted upon. A number of issues that members have suggested as agenda items have not been taken up for the last three to four meetings: mining in wildlife habitats, declaration of eco-sensitive areas, restricting central funds to those PAs where wildlife-trained officers are posted, electrocution of elephants, and others.

Conditional clearance farce

One of the standard justifications given by MoEF for clearing projects within wildlife habitats, is that stringent conditions are imposed to minimise damage. Most projects cleared on April 25, for instance, were accompanied by conditions. In the case of roads, for instance, conditions include appropriate speedbreakers, “least impact to wildlife” (whatever that means), no re-alignment, payment of compensation (Net Present Value) to the forest authorities, no further works on the road, and so on. In some cases these are what the CSO members have suggested (for projects that have been under consideration for some time, or where a field visit has been carried out), in others MoEF itself recommends such measures.

But MoEF is well aware of its abysmal record in enforcing compliance to such conditions (not only with respect to wildlife areas, but ‘development’ projects in general). Research based on RTI data obtained from the MoEF by colleagues in Kalpavriksh (Calling the Bluff, http://www.kalpavriksh.org/research-a-analysis) revealed that in the case of the over 6,000 projects currently being monitored, MoEF’s officers are able to monitor each only once in three to four years. It does not even have a centralised record of non-compliance.

It is commonly known that conditions are regularly and blatantly violated. Worse, MoEF rarely takes penalising action against the project authorities, and almost never has it stopped and scrapped a project even after repeated violations.

Several conditions are left deliciously vague, easy for the project authorities to show compliance or difficult for monitoring authorities to detect violations. For instance, in the case of a reservoir project, one condition is “Sufficient water shall be left as reserve in the dam for the use by the wildlife of the area throughout the season.” What is sufficient? Does anyone even know how much wildlife depends on the water, and what the requirement is?

Other conditions, most commonly applied for projects requiring diversion of lands within protected areas, include declaration of an equivalent or larger adjacent/nearby site as protected area, and payment of Net Present Value (NPV) of the forest being diverted to the wildlife authorities. The assumption is that this makes up for the loss of the existing area, an assumption that is baseless because there is no study of what is being lost and what is being added, and no one monitors whether the NPV is used by the authorities in a manner that could compensate the loss. In many cases, such as the Suvarnarekha Multipurpose Project that diverted over 140 hectares of the Dalma Sanctuary in the 1980s, the conditions for extending the sanctuary and for restoring elephant corridors cut off by the project, have still not been met. Moreover, declaration of additional area as protected causes enormous problems for people living in or dependent on that area, a cost that is never factored into the analysis.

In a situation where project authorities are not serious about environmental or social impacts, where MoEF does not have the capacity or interest to ensure compliance, where capable CSOs simply do not exist at many sites, and where the compliance itself could create social problems and hostility towards conservation, conditional clearance is a colossal fraud on the nation.

The National Tiger Closed-door Authority

The NTCA suffers from similar problems, in some cases more acute. Its meetings are few and far between (the last two were in January 2010 and March 2011). Several decisions that get taken in the interim by the NTCA secretariat are without the knowledge, much less the involvement, of most members! Minutes regularly do not reflect the full discussions, leaving out inconvenient or uncomfortable issues taken up by non-official members. And sometimes even by official members; eg the minutes of the March 2011 meeting do not reflect the minister’s own observations that the Biligiri Rangaswamy Temple Sanctuary (BRTS) was improperly notified as a tiger reserve by the Karnataka state government, without waiting for final approval from NTCA.

BRTS is in fact a good example of all that is wrong with NTCA; its secretariat considered and gave ‘in principle’ approval to notify it as a tiger reserve without involving its members, possibly because Jairam Ramesh gave an assurance to this effect in response to a Parliament question by the local MP. At least three NTCA members have raised serious questions regarding the conservation and social implications of this notification, since the BRTS has traditional settlements of Soliga adivasis and there is always the threat of relocation in the case of tiger reserves. None of these queries have been responded to except a general assurance at the last NTCA meeting that no forcible relocation will be done. Despite acknowledging the impropriety of the notification, NTCA has not asked the state government to withdraw it.

NGO members of the NTCA have also repeatedly asked for all relevant documents on tiger reserves, such as assessment reports, information on relocation etc to be given to them and made public, but this too has been usually ignored. Their oral and written concerns regarding the relocation going on in tiger reserves, in blatant violation of both the Wild Life Act and the Forest Rights Act, have been repeatedly ignored.

Civil society ineffectiveness and complicity

All the above examples point to serious and multiple crises facing these committees. In particular, NGO members are being forced to accept pre-decided conclusions by the minister or officials in MoEF and NTCA. Some of them are protesting at or after the meetings, but being repeatedly ignored; it is not clear how long they will keep protesting before deciding it may be better to step down. Many others are worse, they are not even raising their voice, perhaps fearing the consequences of rubbing MoEF up the wrong way (loss of funding opportunities? fear that they will not be called onto any future committees?). Some may even believe that ‘development’ of whatever nature, must take precedence over conservation.

Tragically, no one, even those protesting internally, is raising these issues in public, with one or two exceptions. At least if they were to alert civil society about the problems with the process, and release information that could help other groups take up campaigns regarding destructive projects, their presence in these committees would serve some purpose. They could be charged with breach of protocol, but surely when public interest is threatened by farcical processes, this is a small price to pay?

With civil society being silenced (or censoring themselves), the NBWL and NTCA can simply not be effective in their prime objective -- that of conserving India’s wildlife. As a first step to rectify the situation, civil society members should resign en masse, and demand concrete measures to ensure that conservation action does indeed get priority. Till then, the NBWL and NTCA themselves should be put on the list of species facing extinction.

Infochange News & Features, June 2011