Projects falling within wildlife zones back in reckoning

Several project proposals which were taken off the list for forest clearance as they fell within wildlife zones or were awaiting comprehensive assessment will be considered afresh by the Forest Advisory Committee of the Ministry of Environment and Forests in January.

The proposals include exploration for coal in Singrauli, Madhya Pradesh, in zones that were earlier identified by the ministry as being part of a wildlife corridor. There is also a proposal to permit iron ore excavation in Saranda, Jharkhand, where permission for mining was blocked after the area had been identified as an elephant reserve.

Yet another proposal is for the 700 MW Tato-II Hydroelectric Project on the Siyom in Arunachal Pradesh without a cumulative assessment study the ministry earlier mandated for the river basin.

The Forest Advisory Committee is the statutory authority under the Forest Conservation Act. It is headed by the seniormost forest officer, Director-General of Forests, and comprises several senior forest officials and some non-official experts. All proposals for forest clearance are assessed by this committee, and the Environment Minister takes the final call on the projects based on its reviews. Rarely does the Minister go against the committee’s views and the listing of projects on the agenda for the panel is done with the Minister’s knowledge.

The proposals in Singrauli include exploration for coal in the Dongri Taal, Patpahariya, Marki-Barka East and Marki-Barka West blocks. They are in close proximity to the Sanjay-Dubri Tiger Reserve. The blocks were earlier earmarked by the Ministry as falling within areas with tigers. Even a ‘refined’ study by the National Tiger Conservation Authority (NTCA) concluded that two of these were important for tiger conservation. The NTCA noted that they fell within the zone that should be declared an ecologically sensitive area.

Iron mining in the Saranda forests is proposed in what was notified as the Singhbhum elephant reserve. In 2010, while permitting some public sector undertakings to mine at one end of the reserve, the Ministry ruled that no other mining leases be permitted in the Saranda forests, but has gone back on its decision.

At the same time, the Centre has dithered for several years on greater protection to elephant reserves and on establishing a conservation authority, which was recommended by a committee on the lines of the NTCA. Empowering the authority with legal mandate would make it difficult for projects to be sanctioned in elephant reserves.

Tato-II project appraisal was earlier put on the back burner after the committee sought a cumulative assessment of all projects planned in the river basin. But after hectic discussions between the Environment and Power Ministries and after the Cabinet Committee on Investments considered the issue, the FAC is set to discuss the plan again without the assessment.

It claims that this is the first project in the river basin that has come up for forest clearance and so it can be taken up for approval without cumulative assessment. But the Ministry gave environment clearance in 2005 for another project on the same river basin downstream.