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New Delhi: The wildlife panel of the environment ministry has given the go-ahead for the diversion of forest land from the Nauradehi Wildlife Sanctuary in Madhya Pradesh for the widening of a highway and building part of a reservoir.

This comes in the backdrop of a controversy over the green clearance for the Ken-Betwa river interlinking project. Land from the Nauradehi sanctuary is proposed to be added to the Panna Tiger Reserve in lieu of the area diverted for the Ken-Betwa project.

The recommendation for wildlife clearance by the standing committee of the National Board for Wildlife (NBWL) came despite the wildlife division of the ministry of environment, forest and climate change (MoEFCC) flagging problems with it.

NBWL, the apex wildlife body in the country, is headed by Prime Minister Narendra Modi. But it is the standing committee headed by the union environment minister that takes routine policy decisions on clearing projects involving diversion of forests in wildlife sanctuaries or national parks.

At a meeting on 15 May, the committee led by the late Anil Madahv Dave, who was the then environment minister, considered wildlife clearance for several projects. Dave died on 18 May.

The minutes of the meeting held on 30 May, reviewed by Mint, show the committee considered two proposals for the diversion of 39.75 hectare of land from the Nauradehi Wildlife Sanctuary for widening the existing National Highway-12, to four lanes from two lanes, under the National Highways Development Project (NHDP) Phase-III in Madhya Pradesh. It also considered the diversion of 0.145 hectare of forest land from the same sanctuary for construction of Harduwa reservoir canal in Madhya Pradesh.

As per the minutes of the meeting of NBWL’s standing committee, the inspector general of forests (IGF) (wildlife) of the environment ministry briefed the panel about the proposals and said, “Nauradehi sanctuary is a part of the area proposed to be added to Panna Tiger Reserve in lieu of the diverted area for Ken-Betwa Link Canal".

The committee, however, cleared the projects overlooking the points raised by the IGF. It, however, specified several mitigation measures that were proposed by Madhya Pradesh’s chief wildlife warden for the widening of NH-12, which is expected to improve connectivity between Jabalpur, Bhopal and other districts of Madhya Pradesh.

The proposed mitigation measures include suggestions such as animal underpasses, chain link fencing to reduce the probability of animals dying in road accidents, and artificial water bodies or ponds at intervals on either side of the road to avoid animals crossing the road for water.

The committee also decided to recommend the second proposal for the diversion of 0.145 hectare of forest land from the Nauradehi Wildlife Sanctuary only for the construction of the Harduwa reservoir canal in Madhya Pradesh.

There has been resistance to diversion of around 6,000 hectares of forests, mostly from the Panna tiger reserve, for the Ken-Betwa river interlinking project. Last month, the forest panel of the MoEFCC recommended forest clearance for the project.

To compensate for loss of tiger habitat, it was proposed that the Nauradehi wildlife sanctuary and other areas would be brought under the Panna Tiger Reserve. This decision of the NBWL’s committee may not go down well with wildlife activists who often term it a rubber stamp body only interested in clearing projects while overlooking and ignoring genuine environmental concerns.

“When you lose core area of Panna then nothing ‘compensates’ for it ... Period. That said, Nauradehi Wildlife Sanctuary is connected to the Panna Tiger Reserve and tigers from Panna have reached Nauradehi. There seems to be neither the sanctity of a protected area, or of the promise made for taking forests for the Ken-Betwa project?" said Prerna Singh Bindra, a former member of the National Board for Wildlife.

The first phase of the Ken-Betwa project will cost around Rs10,000 crore and is expected to help irrigate about 600,000 hectares of land and provide drinking water to 1.34 million people in the two states, according to government estimates. But it will also threaten endangered species such as the tiger, gharial and several kinds of vultures. About 1.8 million trees are also to be felled for the project.

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