4 min read.Updated: 14 Aug 2014, 12:35 AM ISTNeha Sethi
Govt seeks to clear a logjam that has stalled industrial and economic growth, raising hackles of environment activists
New Delhi: The newly reconstituted National Board for Wildlife (NBWL) has cleared most of the 140 projects that have been awaiting its approval, as the government seeks to clear a logjam that has stalled industrial and economic growth, immediately raising the hackles of conservationists.
The projects that have been cleared include the high-profile Teesta IV dam in North Sikkim that has received forest and environment clearances, a government official said on condition of anonymity, after the board held its first meeting on Tuesday and Wednesday.
An earlier standing committee of the board last year had pointed to several violations in the hydroelectric project that is expected to generate 520 megawatts of power.
Other significant projects that were cleared include state-owned Oil India Ltd’s proposed pipelines in Assam and a patrolling road along the India-Bangladesh border in the Dampa tiger reserve in Mizoram.
“Projects which were lingering for three years have been cleared and the reconstituted board is much more positive and decisive than the previous one," said the official cited earlier.
When NBWL was reconstituted in July after the new Bharatiya Janata Party-led government came to power in May, experts complained that it lacked adequate representation for wildlife conservationists.
As many as nine out of the board’s 12 members are government officials. Out of the remaining three, one is a retired government official and the other is a government-run body.
Environmentalists and conservationists say the board is supposed to be a policymaking body and not a clearing committee. “The intentions of this government are not towards policymaking but to clear projects. They don’t care for the ecology," said Kishor Rithe, a former member of the board.
Delays in the award of wildlife, environment and forest clearances have received part of the blame for economic growth slumping to below 5% for two consecutive years. The United Progressive Alliance (UPA) government, ousted in the April-May general election, tried to portray the delays as the outcome of a conflict between concerns related to economic development and the environment.
As on 30 June, projects worth ₹ 1.1 trillion were stalled, shelved or abandoned, according to data compiled by the Centre for Monitoring Indian Economy. Of these, projects worth ₹ 226.7 billion were stalled. To be sure, not all of the delays were on account of delayed environment, forest or wildlife clearances.
The government official cited above said the board had done a realistic assessment of the impact of a project on the wildlife in the area and had shown due concern for conservation.
“For every project that has been cleared, a wildlife management plan has been insisted upon and the cost for the same will be borne by the company whose project has been cleared," the official said.
Of the projects considered by NBWL, at least 10 were those being considered by the project monitoring group (PMG), which has been set up to track large investment projects. These included a natural gas pipeline by GSPL India Transco Ltd in Andhra Pradesh, and widening of a national highway through the Madhav National Park in Madhya pradesh.
The projects which were being tracked by the PMG have all been cleared, the official confirmed.
Another proposal, related to the widening of a highway passing through the Pench tiger reserve in Madhya Pradesh, was not approved. “While maintenance and strengthening of roads inside a sanctuary have been allowed, no widening has been permitted," the official said.
The official added that there had been cases where the size of forest land that was allowed to be diverted from a protected area was much less than the compensation awarded to it.
“In case of the Kishtwar high-altitude national park in Jammu and Kashmir, while 150 hectares has been brought out of the sanctuary, to compensate for it, 800 hectares have been added to the sanctuary," he said, citing an example.
Conservationists have cautioned that projects should not be cleared in haste just to speed up the pace of economic growth, and criticized environment minister Prakash Javadekar for the manner in which NBWL has been reconstituted.
There is no need to conduct a meeting of NBWL members if the agenda of the board is only to clear all pending projects, said an activist who didn’t want to be named.
“It is a charade and the government doesn’t really care for wildlife. Everybody is playing games in name of wildlife and conservation," he said. “Is the role of the board to protect wildlife or to clear projects?"
Since taking over as minister, Javadekar has cleared some controversial projects, including the proposed installation of a static radar by the coast guard on Narcondam in the Andaman and Nicobar Islands, which could further endanger the Narcondam hornbill. Theses birds are found only on this island, and less than 350 of them remain.
Madhura Karnik in Mumbai contributed to this report.