Defence projects in Andamans await wildlife board’s nod

There are concerns over threat to the Nicobar scrubfowl and the Narcondam hornbill from the army's static radar and dummy missile projects

New Delhi: The National Board of Wildife is considering proposals for two defence ministry installations in the vicinity of a pair of bird sanctuaries in the Andaman and Nicobar Islands, raising concern among environmentalists.

photoOne of the projects entails setting up temporary structures for test-firing dummy missiles in Tillachong, an island where a sanctuary devoted to the Nicobar scrubfowl is located. The other proposal is for installing a static radar system in Narcondam, which houses a sanctuary for the Narcondam hornbill, a species found only on the island.

The Nicobar scrubfowl is endemic to the islands; the 2004 tsunami wiped out much of their population on some of the islands.

The Narcondam hornbill is a small 66 cm long hornbill of which only around 300 remain. The Hindustan Times had reported on the Narcondam project on 8 July. The standing committee of the National Board of Wildlife is considering the two proposals.

A non-government member of the board, speaking on condition of anonymity, said he didn’t understand why the proposals were even being considered. The board shouldn’t typically consider setting up any projects in India’s 680 protected areas, this person said.

Other non-official members of the board confirmed that the two defence projects were being considered.

The board, set up under the Wildlife Protection Act, is headed by Prime Minister Manmohan Singh. Environment minister Jayanthi Natarajan is chairperson of the standing committee of the board that’s empowered to decide on matters of construction inside protected areas.

The board has 47 members, of which 32 are serving or retired government officials.

The others are non-official members and are individuals from institutions that work in the area of conservation, such as the World Wide Fund for Nature, and other organizations such as the Karnataka Medicinal Plant Association.

Jagdish Kishwan, member-secretary of the board, said no final decision had been taken on the two defence ministry proposals. “Minutes (of a standing committee meeting) are still under circulation and are yet to be finalized," he added. The two proposals were discussed by the standing committee on 13 June and a final decision is expected in a few months.

Shekar Dattatri, one of the coordinators at Conservation India and a former member of the board of wildlife, said the defence ministry’s requirements are important, but wildlife and environmental laws must be followed strictly.

“Supreme Court orders are clear that no non-forestry activities can take place within protected areas unless they are for the betterment of wildlife. In the case of Narcondam Island, which is a notified wildlife sanctuary harbouring the only population of Narcondam hornbills in the world, an infrastructure project of the kind envisaged would be disastrous," he added.

Praveen Bhargav, another former member of the board, said the Wildlife Protection Act clearly mandates that it is the National Board of Wildlife (and not the central government) which is empowered to recommend project clearances in national parks and sanctuaries. “There is no scope under the law for taking unilateral decisions," he said.

Two field reports on the projects, ordered by Natarajan after non-government members protested against the proposals, rejected the proposals, according to non-official members of the wildlife board.

The reports were prepared by teams including Asad Rahmani, director of the Bombay Natural History Society, K.B. Singh, conservator of forests, Andaman and Nicobar forest department, and others. Environmentalists are concerned that the importance of the two projects from a national security perspective may override environmental imperatives.

Former director general of military intelligence R.K. Sawhney said the defence ministry is not given any sort of preference when it comes to clearances from the environment ministry. “They (defence ministry officials) just have to lobby like anyone else."

A senior defence ministry official said: “We do not want to delve into this issue." He didn’t want to be named.

Dattatri wondered why the projects are still “under consideration" after a site inspection carried out by a wildlife board expert categorically concluded that they should be rejected.

He added that the panel is empowered to take a collective decision and it was clear that these proposals were, like many others, being rushed through without adequate due diligence. “When all the independent members (or non-official members) of the standing committee of the National Board for Wildlife are unanimously opposed to the project, where is the question of keeping a decision pending?"

Liz Matthew and Sahil Makkar contributed to the story.