With a new government that promises speedy decision-making — including time-bound environmental clearances — we also have a new form of the National Board for Wildlife (NBWL). Shorn of the mandated numbers of expert members, this board appears to be committed to a leaner and meaner decision-taking body.
Many see this as an assault on the future of India’s varied and amazing wildlife. The Lion-tailed macaque from the moist forests of the Western Ghats, the secretive Great Indian bustard from the arid scrub of the Thar, and the tiger loping along the Central Indian forests are not just animals but forms of regional identity, whose breeding populations are mainly confined to our protected national parks and sanctuaries.
The NBWL considers proposals that affect these protected areas and their respective eco-sensitive zones. Mining, road development, land diversion, laying pipelines and other similar projects are considered by the board, which has governmental representation from tourism, defence or other ministries, as in current proposals.
Best interest standard Shearing the NBWL of expert members — only three non-official members have been instituted, as against five non-governmental organisations and 10 expert members mandated by the Wildlife Protection Act — has been seen as an assault on the last “homes” of our charismatic and endangered species. An apex decision-making body that does not have the requisite number of different subject matter experts casts aspersions on our national goals of sustainable development and balanced growth.
Last year, the Supreme Court, in a landmark judgment ( Centre for Environmental Law WWF-1 v. Union of India and Others), called for the establishment of “species best interest standard” for endangered species’ conservation. Stating that the protection of species should be free from profit, the judgment called for a fearless application of conservation plans with what it termed an “eco-centric approach” which would emphasise the species’ survival needs.
India has a variety of protected areas: some magnificent tiger reserves span different States; smaller State-level sanctuaries provide small but critical refuge to endemic and endangered species, and some protected reserves transform themselves with the seasonal migration of birds and turtles; from Kanha’s sal forests and Assam’s Kaziranga, to high-altitude wetlands in Tsomoriri, there are stunning catchments of water and soil and active carbon sinks.
An eco-centric approach emphasises that these ecosystems, and their wildlife, have an inherent right to exist at levels of ontology and altruism, untarred by how humans wish to exploit, manage or harness the natural goods from them. Indeed, our existing laws — the Wildlife Protection Act, 1972, and the Forest Rights Act, 2006 — call for an identification of inviolate reserves and critical wildlife habitats. Primary forests, once cut down, cannot be replenished completely for at least another 50 years; rivers, once polluted or diverted, cannot be replaced in a mechanical manner.
Only 5.2 per cent of India’s terrestrial area is protected for wildlife and nature. Conservationists have always held that if over 90 per cent of India’s land mass cannot provide for our needs, it is unlikely that the last five per cent — meant to be shielded from extractive processes — will. Thus, fears that a smaller NBWL, synergised with the government’s declared goal of speedy processing of environmental clearances, will deal an irreversible blow to our wildlife, are not unfounded. However, there is even more to be considered.
Models of growth For decades, the conservation of species was seen to be dealing exclusively with the tiger, lion, turtle and other species. Over a period of time, these conservation norms have evolved. The world has also seen the formulation of the concept of sustainable development, which proposes models of growth that consider leaving a cleaner environment for future generations. Currently, a working group under the United Nations framework is creating Sustainable Development Goals (SDG). These 17 working goals, following 2012’s ‘Rio+ 20’ summit, recognise the need for biodiversity and environment protection, arguing that safe, sustainable and healthy environments (or as an extension, states and countries) require strong biodiversity and nature conservation.
Even before these ideas came to light, India had its own National Biodiversity Targets which emphasise that environmental conservation is to be mainstreamed into our planning processes and development goals. While some may view this as idealistic, increasing evidence also shows that this is practical.
At a cost Environmental degradation comes at a cost to the economy. If big projects march on without risk and sustainability assessments, they will come at a cost which we will start to pay sooner than anticipated.
Rules mandating inviolate areas can be considered charismatic and burdensome in equal measure. But they also protect catchments of our reserves which we will need for the future of our development. Can growth, at any cost, actually pay the costs of environmental risk, resource scarcity and calamity? Most of our rivers originate from, or flow through, our 45 tiger reserves. Forests, protected in large measure by the umbrella of sanctuaries monitored by the NBWL, are agents that stabilise microclimate, bringing rain and flood control. As events preceding last year’s Uttarakhand flash floods showed us, construction on the flood plains of Himalayan rivers — technically deemed ‘eco-sensitive zones’ —is entirely possible. It may not however, be wise.
Development is not just about human creation, but about the development of social and health indices of which a clean environment is an integral part. The question of a smaller NBWL, sans subject experts thus, is one that is related to our fundamental right to life and a clean environment.
The NBWL should be reconstituted in consonance with the Wildlife Protection Act, not just for the sake our animals, but also for our own identification as a proud nation with a proud natural heritage. The constituency of nature exceeds the constituency of people and animals, and protecting it, with the help of technocratic expertise and without haste, suits both democratic processes and our own development as Indian citizens.
(Neha Sinha is with the Bombay Natural History Society. The views expressed are personal. )