The State governments are deliberately delaying the notification of buffer zones for wildlife reserves, in order to make it easier to approve projects in those areas which could harm the environment, alleged Union Minister of State for Environment and Forests Jairam Ramesh.
After the issue was discussed at the National Board for Wildlife meeting on Thursday, the Prime Minister decided to take up the issue with Chief Ministers, asking them to expedite the process, added Mr. Ramesh.
“Protected areas are under acute pressure,” he said. “The delay in notification is not sheer laziness…It is not accidental. It is deliberate to allow an easier approval process. The non-notification of buffer zones has led to a proliferation of projects with grave environmental consequences which threaten biodiversity.”
He pointed to areas such as the Tadoba Tiger Reserve in Maharashtra, which had 40 approved projects, mostly in the coal and power sectors, in close proximity to the protected area. Only one has been rejected.
Once the buffer is notified, what happens to projects that have already been approved? Mr. Ramesh said that while it was not clear if the notification could be applied retrospectively, he was open to overturning approvals if there was enough evidence that the project would harm the environment.
States have also been asked to identify critical wildlife habitats under threat from development projects such as mines, power plants and highway construction, as required under the Forest Rights Act, 2006. Only 18 State governments have even notified committees to begin this process in the three years since the Act was passed.
At the Board's meeting, the Prime Minister expressed concern about the high mortality rate of tigers at many reserves, especially at the Corbett National Park in Uttarakhand and the Panna reserve in Madhya Pradesh. He will lend the weight of his office in monitoring State governments on this issue as well, said Mr. Ramesh.
Corbett's tiger habitats are “threatened by the mining mafia, real estate mafia in a conspiracy with local political interests,” said Mr. Ramesh.
The Ministry has also asked for increased funding to relocate families out of tiger reserves and other protected areas. Of the 80,000 families to be relocated from 37 Project Tiger reserves, only 3,000 have moved so far. To pay the compensation of Rs. 10 lakh per family, the Ministry will need a total financial package of Rs. 8,000 crore over the next seven years, of which only Rs. 2,000 crore is available as of now.
Families in the other 663 reserves are also welcome to take advantage of the same scheme, said Mr. Ramesh, adding that about 1,000 families have recently asked to be shifted from the Kudremukh protected area in Karnataka, mostly in order to avoid harassment by the Maoists.