‘Stop forest, environment clearances’

A group of 291 conservation scientists and allied professionals has asked Environment, Forest and Climate Change Minister Prakash Javadekar to withhold forest and environment clearances during the COVID-19 pandemic.

The group includes 12 former members of the Standing Committee of the National Board for Wildlife (NBWL), the highest advisory body on wildlife chaired by the Prime Minister.

An Assam-based environment activist has also written to Mr. Javadekar, seeking the preservation of the autonomy of the National Tiger Conservation Authority (NTCA), along with other specialised Environment Ministry (MoEF&CC) wings, such as the Forest Survey of India (FSI), the Central Zoo Authority (CZA) and the Wildlife Crime Control Bureau (WCCB).

The Hindu had broken the story on the MoEF&CC’s bid to restructure its regional offices by subsuming the NTCA and all the other specialised wings.

The letter by the conservationists’ group is in reference to the decisions and clearances given by the 57th meeting of the Standing Committee on April 7 for 31 proposals affecting 15 tiger reserves, sanctuaries, notified eco-sensitive zones, deemed eco-sensitive zones and designated wildlife corridors. These include the private sector Etalin hydro-power project in Arunachal Pradesh and a coal mining project in an Assam elephant reserve.

“The MoEF&CC is under orders of the Supreme Court to strictly comply with the Lafarge judgement (2011, related to limestone quarrying in Meghalaya) guidelines to tighten the clearance process. Shockingly, key guidelines are being ignored, including the failure to appoint a national regulator for appraising projects... Granting fast-track clearances has now become the rule,” said Praveen Bhargav, a former member of the NBWL.

The signatories presented several concerns with regard to project evaluations not being done rigorously to the method of functioning by statutory bodies. They said video calls were not an efficient mode of communication to assess the environmental, livelihood and biodiversity impacts of projects.

They pointed out that under normal circumstances, Expert Appraisal Committee meetings lasted an entire day. In comparison, meetings during the recent lockdown lasted only 2 hours, with only 10 minutes to appraise each project.

Digital documents

The reliance on digital documents uploaded by project developers on the Parivesh single-window clearance portal led to “fait accompli situations” and gravely compromised the appraisals by the committees during the lockdown. The signatories said that appraisals and assessments for clearances were being reduced to an “empty formality” lacking the credibility and rigour of its purpose.

Given the current circumstances and uncertain future, the signatories called for fresh appraisals, holding in abeyance forest and environmental clearance decisions and postponing further meetings till all pandemic-related travel and meeting restrictions are completely lifted across India. They urged the MoEF&CC to carry out its intended mandate of protection of forests, wildlife and natural heritage and not fast-track the clearance of projects.

The signatories include former Bombay Natural History Society director Asad Rahmani, conservationists M.K. Ranjitsinh, A.J.T. Johnsingh, Belinda Wright and Bittu Sahgal, Goa-based lawyer Norma Alvares and film-maker Mike Pandey. Indian academics from the universities of Columbia, Yale, Michigan and Cambridge also signed the letter.

In a separate letter, conservationist Rohit Choudhury appealed to Mr Javadekar to save the independence of NTCA.

“...certain senior forest officials are hell-bent on finishing the existence of statutory bodies like the NTCA, which oversees the agenda of tiger conservation in India,” he wrote, expressing concern over the proposed merger exercise that could impact the successful Project Tiger.

“On the face of it, the officials are giving excuses of better planning and coordination but the real hidden agenda is to scuttle the autonomy, independence of the NTCA and convert it into a dysfunctional entity,” Mr Choudhury said. Institutions such as the NTCA, WCCB, CZA and the FSI would not have been created in the first place if bringing them under the administrative control of a single regional office led to better planning and coordination.

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Printable version | Apr 13, 2021 4:18:55 AM |

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