New Delhi:India’s environment ministry is considering doubling the number of protected areas such as national parks and wildlife sanctuaries from the current 729 over the next few years.

At present protected areas, including national parks, wildlife sanctuaries, and conservation and community reserves, cover 4.9% or 162,072 sq. km of India’s geographical area.

Conservationists like Manoj Misra are, however, sceptical about the government’s ability to double these areas as it has taken several decades for the existing protected areas to be secured.

“The problem is mindset ... policymakers are only interested in diversion of areas for so-called developmental projects. Protected areas are just a hindrance. Doubling of protected areas is not a problem provided policymakers are genuinely serious about it, but even then it will take many years," said Misra, convener of Yamuna Jiye Abhiyaan, a non-governmental organization working for the rejuvenation of the Yamuna.

The issue was discussed at a 25 January meeting of the standing committee of the National Board for Wildlife (NBWL), which is headed by environment minister Harsh Vardhan. India’s network of protected areas is far below the “Aichi Target" of 17% of the terrestrial land, an environment ministry official, said in a briefing, according to minutes of the standing committee meeting which were reviewed by Mint.

Aichi biodiversity targets are a series of goals that were set in 2010 at a Conference of Parties to the Convention on Biological Diversity meeting for protection and conservation of biodiversity.

The official further said that states such as Uttar Pradesh (2.4 %), Rajasthan (2.8 %), Jharkhand (2.7 %), West Bengal (3.2 %), Bihar (3.4 %), Madhya Pradesh (3.5 %), Tamil Nadu (4.1 %), which have contributed less than the national average to the network of projected area, may be requested to achieve the average national target of at least 5% of their geographical area under the four protected area categories. The official said if it was not possible to declare an area a national park or wildlife sanctuary, adequate areas should be covered under conservation reserve and community reserve categories to achieve the target.

According to the minutes of the meeting, another committee member, H.S. Singh, said it may not be possible to achieve the “Aichi Target" by 2020 in India due to the high population density, but the country should aim to reach at least half the target.

The Standing Committee also recommended that the ministry should issue an advisory to states and union territories asking them to make sincere efforts to declare more areas as conservation and community reserves and said it would review progress periodically, the minutes showed.

“Protected areas are the last refuges of endangered wildlife. They also provide ecosystem services being river watersheds and sequestering carbon. While India has done well in conserving some species like tiger, it needs to up its ante as far as Protected Area Network is concerned, where its neighbours like Bhutan and Nepal fare better than our 5% (of land under PA). However, a mere declaration is not sufficient, we need actual protection, said Prerna Singh Bindra, former member of the National Board for Wildlife.

“Shouldn’t we also secure our current PA’s instead of slashing them with ever-expanding highways and drowning them with river-linking projects?" she asked.

The panel also recommended that the ministry issue an advisory to the states and UTs to make “sincere efforts to explore possibilities of bringing more marine areas under conservation reserves to conserve and protect the marine biodiversity with peoples’ participation".

At present, about 0.3 % of EEZ (exclusive economic zone) is under Marine Protected Areas (MPA) in India, far below the Aichi Target of 10%.

“Some of the critical marine area within territorial water of India can be considered for declaring as sanctuaries whereas a large marine area can be covered under conservation reserve. Conservation reserve does not restrict activities such as fisheries, navigation, activities of Navy and other sustainable industrial development," Singh said.

Meanwhile, the Standing Committee also formed a panel to give a report within two months on a policy framework on “wildlife - human conflicts" and “landscape level conservation".

In India, human-wildlife conflict has escalated in recent years due to factors such as habitat transformation, land use change outside forests, adverse climate events, and behavioural ecology of animals among other reasons.

According to official data, at least one human life has been lost every day over the last three years due to conflict with elephants and tigers due to reasons such as shrinking wildlife habitats and vanishing animal corridors. A total of 1,144 human deaths were recorded due to conflict with tigers and elephants in 1,143 days till May 2017.

Similarly, at least 80 elephants are killed every year in India on an average, totalling up to 655 deaths in the last eight years due to reasons like electrocution, train accidents, poaching and poisoning.