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The decision by the environment ministry overrides the concerns of environmentalists that it could threaten the endangered Olive Ridley turtles and several bird species. Photo: AFP
The decision by the environment ministry overrides the concerns of environmentalists that it could threaten the endangered Olive Ridley turtles and several bird species. Photo: AFP

Government clears diversion of forest land to set up missile testing facility

150 hectares of forest in the Krishna wildlife sanctuary in Andhra Pradesh has been diverted for setting up a missile testing facility

New Delhi: The environment ministry has cleared the diversion of over 150 hectares of forest in the Krishna wildlife sanctuary in Andhra Pradesh for setting up a missile testing facility, overriding concerns that it could threaten endangered Olive Ridley turtles and several bird species.

It is the third time in two years that a defence project has claimed space meant for wildlife.

The go-ahead to the project, overseen by the Defence Research and Development Organisation (DRDO), was given by environment ministry’s forest advisory committee (FAC) at a meeting on 16 March. Minutes of the meeting were accessed by Mint.

FAC appraises projects that involve mining, construction of highways and other infrastructure that entail diversion of forest land. It approves or rejects proposals; the environment ministry has the final say, but typically the ministry doesn’t veto decisions taken by the panel.

DRDO has proposed setting up the missile testing facility because a previous one, built in Odisha around 20 years ago, had restrictions clamped on it after Dhamra port came up close to it in 2011.

The FAC’s approval comes despite objections by Andhra Pradesh forest officials, who pointed out that the area sought for the project is part of the last surviving mangrove forests in the Krishna estuary which support unique flora and fauna, many of which are vulnerable species.

Wildlife found in the area include the Olive Ridley turtle (endangered), fishing cat (endangered), otter (vulnerable) and a variety of fish species.

“The area also reports a variety of avifauna, both resident as well as migratory birds such as spot-billed pelicans (near threatened), egrets, gulls, cormorants (endangered), open billed storks, painted storks (near threatened), bee eaters, and plovers," said K.S. Reddy, additional principal chief conservator of forest (central region), in a site visit report.

According to the minutes of the FAC meeting reviewed by Mint, a road proposed to be built as part of the project would be constructed on a raised platform so that tidal action and wildlife movement is not restricted.

The forest panel also said DRDO should follow conditions set by the chief wildlife warden (CWLW) of Andhra Pradesh.

In a report, Andhra Pradesh’s CWLW said in case the project gets forest clearance, DRDO should make sure tests at the facility are restricted to the day, stop during the Olive Ridley turtle nesting season (January-May) and that lighting is wildlife-friendly.

Forest officials have expressed concern that noise and the use of lighting after the test facility is constructed would affect the nesting activity of the turtles.

It is the third instance in two years of a forest area being diverted for a defence project. In September 2015, FAC approved the expansion of an air force base at Naliya in Kutch, Gujarat, one of the few places in the country where the Great Indian Bustard, of which there are less than 100, is found.

In 2014, the environment ministry approved the construction of a radar station at Narcondam Island in the Bay of Bengal; the area is home to the Narcondam hornbill. The entire population of the species, less than 350, lives on the volcanic island.

Environmentalists are upset.

“The situation is really critical and we have nowhere to go because even the Supreme Court has said tigers are important, but not at the cost of progress," said ornithologist Bikram Grewal.

Prerna Bindra, a conservationist and a former member of the standing committee of the National Board of Wildife, said national security was indeed crucial and a priority.

“Very rarely are defence projects held up. However, ecological integrity is important, too, especially when we are talking of the last refuges—deemed protected areas—of critically endangered species, some of which are endemic to India," Bindra said.

“And it’s not just about wildlife, we are sacrificing forests and mangroves, which are crucial to our water security, are our carbon sinks."

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