High rate of green clearances continue, puts forests and wildlife at risk

  • In the first six months of 2019, the expert panels of the environment ministry considered 270 proposals that sought diversion of forest land and land from wildlife sanctuaries, national parks and tiger reserves. Among them, the majority were recommended clearance while less than five percent were rejected.
  • A latest analysis has revealed that linear projects like roads, railways, transmission lines and pipelines, mining and irrigation accounted for over 90 percent of the projects recommended for green clearances.
  • It was also revealed that the expert panels that recommended clearances for diversion rarely looked at ensuring compliance of the Forest Rights Act 2006 while considering such proposals.

A latest analysis of the forest and wildlife clearances recommended by expert panels of the environment ministry, in the first six months of 2019, has found that most projects seeking diversion of land from forests, wildlife reserves and similar eco-sensitive areas were given a green light by the experts. However, the high rate of clearances for projects is not in sync with the core purpose of the wildlife and forest acts, meant to protect animals and forests from human activity and disturbance, the analysis has found. 

The analysis by the Legal Initiative for Forest and Environment (LIFE), an organisation working on environmental law, has revealed that the panels recommended clearance for diversion of land from forests, wildlife sanctuaries, national parks and tiger reserves in the majority of the cases it considered without considering the impact of such projects on forests and wildlife.  

Mridhu Tandon, an associate analyst at LIFE who conducted the study, explained to Mongabay-India that a “major concern is the fact that while considering non-site specific projects on forest lands, no effort is made to analyse if there are any alternatives available.”

“Clearances were meant to regulate the diversion of forest land and wildlife habitats from ecologically destructive projects such as mining, railways and roads. However, from the analysis of the minutes of the meetings (of the expert panels), we found that critical aspects such as habitat fragmentation, species conservation are rarely looked into,” said Tandon.

According to the various environmental rules and regulations in India, environment, forest and wildlife clearances from the Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change (MoEFCC) to projects are required where forest land, protected areas and wildlife reserves are to be used for purposes other than forestry or wildlife conservation. The clearances are granted on the basis of recommendations of expert panels constituted by the environment ministry to assess such projects. 

The analysis revealed that of the 270 projects that sought diversion of forest land or land from the wildlife sanctuaries, national parks and tiger reserves between January-June 2019, less than five percent were rejected. This time period was also the end (last six months) of the first term of the National Democratic Alliance government from 2014 to 2019.

More than 80 percent of forest land considered for diversion given go-ahead by expert panels

Out of the 240 proposals considered by the forest advisory committee (FAC) and the regional empowered committee (REC) for diversion of forest land for non-forestry purposes, 193 proposals were recommended, 40 proposals were deferred for later consideration and seven were rejected. In this time period, 11,271.29 hectares of forest land were considered for diversion for non-forestry purposes. Of this, at least 9,220.64 hectares (about 100 square kilometres) were recommended for diversion for mining, roads, railways, hydel and developing infrastructure and the remaining which accounts for 1.01 percent was rejected.

Among the projects cleared, linear projects (roads, railways, transmission lines, pipelines) account for 53.66 percent (4,948.10 hectares) of forest land recommended for diversion while irrigation and mining together account for 41.69 percent (3,844.57 hectares). Together, the proposals under linear, mining and quarrying and irrigation account for 95.36 percent of total forest land recommended for diversion.

Out of 46 proposals on mining and quarrying, 37 projects were recommended for diversion, eight were deferred and one was rejected. Of the 2,500 hectares cleared for mining, 38 percent (961.01 hectares) was for coal mining alone. 

The analysis by LIFE is based on the review and analysis of the minutes of the meetings of the FAC and RECs.

Diversion of about 100 square kilometres of forest land was okayed by environment ministry’s expert panels in the first half of 2019. Photo by Krishnappa/Wikimedia Commons.

Among states, seven states – Andhra Pradesh, Jharkhand, Odisha, Chhattisgarh, Maharashtra, Gujarat and Madhya Pradesh accounted for 75.11 percent (6,925.66 hectares) of the total forest land recommended for diversion. 

R.K. Singh, who is a trustee and scientific advisor at LIFE, said that linear projects are the biggest threat to wildlife as they end up fragmenting wildlife habitats resulting in disturbance to animals. 

“The role of the non-government members in these expert panels that recommend clearances is crucial and needs to be looked at. Why are they silent and not rejecting the proposals?” Singh, who guided the research, told Mongabay-India.

The analysis emphasised that it is important to note that while recommending a project in wildlife habitats, “neither FAC nor REC calls for a scientific study analysing the impact of the proposed project on the wildlife.” This is when the Forest (Conservation) Amendment Rules, 2014 requires that the committees (before recommending the proposal) ensure the state government or union territory administration considers the direct and indirect impact of diversion of forest land on wildlife. 

The analysis further said that “barring plantation forests, 59.16 percent of forest land recommended for diversion falls under medium dense and very dense forest type.” It said it is important to note that diversion of forest land which supports moderately dense and very dense canopy density has implications for climate change regulation. 

In 2015, India, as a part of its Intended Nationally Determined Contributions (INDCs), has communicated to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) that it will create an additional carbon sink of 2.5-3 billion tonnes of carbon dioxide equivalent by 2030. 

“The Energy and Resources Institute (TERI) in its ‘Roadmap for achieving additional 2.5-3 billion tonnes CO2 sequestration from forestry sector by 2030’ suggests that in order to achieve this target, the very dense forest area should be conserved. The recommendation for diversion of dense forest areas does not inspire much confidence that the target will be achieved,” said the analysis. 

Are the rights of scheduled tribes and forest dwellers being ignored?

As per the Forest (Conservation) Rules, 2016, before approval is given for the diversion of forest land for non-forestry purposes under the Forest (Conservation) Act, 1980, it is mandatory that the process of recognition and vesting of forest rights in accordance with the provisions of Scheduled Tribes and Other Traditional Forest Dwellers (Recognition of Forest Rights) Act 2006 (FRA 2006) is completed. As per the rules, it is also mandatory to obtain the written consent of the gram sabha (village council) for diversion of the forest land. 

“In the context, it is important to note that compliance with the Forest Rights Act is rarely deliberated upon by the FAC and REC while considering forest diversion proposals. When it is discussed, the minutes simply record that ‘documents for compliance with FRA 2006 and gram sabha resolution has been submitted’. In cases where compliance has not been submitted, the recommendation is simply given on the condition that FRA compliance letter will be submitted before grant of stage-II approval,” the analysis said.

“It is important to note that in cases when FRA compliance is submitted along with forest diversion proposals, there is no effort made by the committees to check the authenticity of the same,” it added. 

Wildlife habitats get no reprieve 

During January-June 2019, the standing committee of the National Board for Wildlife considered a total of 70 proposals out of which 30 proposals were for diversion within the protected areas. The committee approved all projects, a total diversion of 216.18 hectares in wildlife sanctuaries and national parks and no proposal was rejected. 

Linear projects like road and railway projects in forests and wildlife habitats end up disturbing animals. Photo by Ambigapathy/Wikimedia Commons.

The analysis highlighted that not even a single proposal approved for diversion within the national parks and wildlife sanctuaries is backed with reasons on “how it benefits wildlife, which implies violation of Wildlife (Protection) Act, 1972.”

Of the 30 proposals for diversion of areas meant for wildlife conservation, 89 percent of diversions were for linear projects (roads, railways, transmission lines, pipelines), seven percent (14.83 hectares) for infrastructure projects and rest four percent (9.52 hectares) for mining and quarrying.

Read more: Roads versus wildlife in Karnataka’s protected areas

More tigers recorded, but with habitats under threat will the uptick continue?

Among the linear projects, the major one was the Mumbai-Ahmedabad High-Speed Rail Project (bullet train) which involved diversion of 118.87 hectares within three protected areas – Thane Creek Flamingo wildlife sanctuary, Tungareshwar wildlife sanctuary and Sanjay Gandhi National Park in Maharashtra. In addition to the land within the protected area, 97.52 hectares within the eco-sensitive zone (ESZ) of the Thane Creek Flamingo wildlife sanctuary was also approved. 

The analysis by LIFE noted that in addition to being a wildlife sanctuary, Thane Creek is an important area from the perspective of birds as more than 205 species of birds have been reported from the area. 

The bullet train project was first considered by the Maharashtra State Board for Wildlife (SBWL) in December 2018. 

“The creek with its mixture of mangroves, salt pans and mudflats is a very important wintering ground for water birds. It supports over 100,000 birds during winter which include Lesser Flamingo (near threatened), Greater Flamingo, Asian Openbill Stork, White Stork, Pied Avocet, Eastern Golden Plover, Temminck’s Stints. However, the SBWL remained silent on the impact of constructing the underground tunnel below the Thane Creek wildlife sanctuary through which the bullet train will pass,” the analysis said.

Highlighting how decisions are taken in wildlife boards, the analysis noted that member secretary of the Maharashtra SBWL had raised a concern that the corridor connecting Sanjay Gandhi National Park and Tungareshwar wildlife sanctuary already has Kaman-Bhivandi-four-lane highway, a train link and two transmission lines passing through it. 

“Given the above scenario, the proposed bullet train, multimodal corridor, dedicated freight corridor and Virar-Panvel elevated railway line will form a complicated maze in the narrow land strip. However, these concerns were not addressed in the meeting and the project was recommended anyway,” the analysis said. 

Explaining the reason, the analysis said, the protected areas like national parks and wildlife sanctuaries are created for the purpose of creating inviolate areas for the purpose of wildlife conservation as the idea is to keep these areas away (or ‘protect’ them) from any human activity or human disturbance – something that is expressed in the Wildlife (Protection) Act, 1972 as well. 

“The statute prohibits damage, destruction or diversion of wildlife sanctuaries and national parks unless it is for the improvement and better management of wildlife. However, the review of the minutes of the meeting of SC NBWL shows that not even a single approval is backed with reasons on how it benefits wildlife. Therefore, it is clear that approvals given by the SC NBWL for diversion within protected areas are not in sync with the provisions of Wildlife (Protection) Act, 1972,” the analysis said. 

Singh also argued about the role of those visiting the project sites to understand the species found in the area. 

“How can anyone after just a one-day visit come to a conclusion about the number of species found in an area? This is not correct. We also need to understand that proposals can’t be looked in isolation. The cumulative impact of proposals in an area needs to be analysed and discussed,” said R.K. Singh.

Banner image: The analysis reveals that wildlife protection is not on the agenda of expert panels while clearing projects in wildlife habitats. Photo by Yathin S Krishnappa/Wikimedia Commons.

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