Sunday, 2 October 2011

Letter to Minister, E and F


Smt Jayanthi Natarajan  

The Minister of State (Independent Charge)

Ministry of Environment and Forests 

Government of India

Date: 25th September,2011

Hon’ble Minister,

Re: National Board of Wildlife

We, the non-official members of the National Board of Wildlife would like to begin by congratulating you on assuming charge of the Ministry.

As you are aware the Standing Committee of the National Board of Wildlife (NBWL), under your chairmanship, is an important statutory body under the Wild Life (Protection) Act, 1972, for the purpose of conservation of wildlife in the country.  Section 5C of the Act provides that it shall be the duty of the NBWL to promote the conservation and development of wildlife and forests by such measures as it thinks fit. Since the powers and functions of NBWL have been delegated to the Standing Committee, for all practical purposes, the Standing Committee has, therefore, been entrusted with the powers and duties of the NBWL.

As Chair of the Standing Committee, we would respectfully like to draw your attention to some serious concerns regarding the mandate and functioning of the board: 

Standing Committee decision making is flawed:  

Protected Areas are the last refuges of many endangered and endemic species, and of our biodiversity, and as we well know they are already stressed and fragmented.   Many of the proposals require clearances that adversely impact these habitats, thereby further endangering wildlife. Yet, the usual practice is to place a large number of proposals -including large projects like dams, highways, mines - in a single meeting of the Standing Committee, and its members are expected to decide their fate in the space of just an hour or two.

Unfortunately, during the recent past, the role of the Standing Committee has been merely limited to that of a clearing-house. The last meeting of the Committee held on 25th April 2011 is a striking example of this, where 59 proposals for diversion from PAs or areas adjoining PAs were considered and most of them, barring a few, were cleared in just a short span of two hours. This has caused immense concern amongst the non-official members and invited criticism, even from the media.

Yet another fact of the same meeting was that 39 clearance proposals were received only two days prior to the meeting leaving very little time, and no working day, for the members to even glance through the proposals. Even more so, the information provided by the states was incomplete, misleading and attuned for fast track clearances.

Such practices make a mockery of the role of the Standing Committee of the NBWL. Clearing or rejecting such a large number of proposals in such a short time span also signifies a lack of proper consideration and can lead to legal complications in case any decisions of the Standing Committee are challenged in courts.

While the Standing Committee of NBWL cannot do away with discussing the various developmental projects seeking diversion of Protected Areas, there should always be adequate time devoted during every meeting of the Standing Committee for discussing wildlife conservation issues and policy matters that require urgent attention. It has been seen in the last few meetings that the prime focus is on clearances within and around PAs, while conservation issues and agenda items of the members get short shift as they are always deferred for ‘next time’.  

Late, incomplete information, and misinformation:

The agenda items are usually sent to the members late, sometimes just a day or two before the meeting. As pointed out in a previous communication, the notification of the Standing Committee states that, “The Member-Secretary shall prepare agenda items for the meeting, obtain approval of the Chairman and circulate it to all members at least fifteen days prior to the date of such meeting.

The information given is rudimentary, poorly drafted and the maps of poor quality. Many times the information given is deliberately incomplete and the Committee is also misinformed. To cite just three examples:

1.   Proposal for setting up a captive thermal power plant (4x60MW) with 1 MTPA cement grinding unit and 1 MTPA coal washery unit within 1.5 kms from the boundary of Kaimur Wildlife Sanctuary, Uttar Pradesh in the 21st meeting of the Standing Committee, January 24th, 2011: it came to our notice that the state government deliberately misled the Standing Committee of the NBWL by not informing that the matter was subjudice before the Honourable Supreme Court. The state and the MoEF failed to mention the fact that gross violations of the Forest Conservation Act, 1980 had taken place, which in fact was pointed out by the regional office (northern region) of the MoEF. Also, the fact that the matter was sub judice and that construction had already begun in full swing, even though the clearance was yet to be obtained, was withheld from the NBWL. Responsibility has to be fixed both on state/MOEF officials in order to prevent its recurrence.

2.   Proposal for diversion of 124.054 ha of forestland from Majathal Wildlife Sanctuary for construction of Kol Dam Project, Himachal Pradesh, in the 20th meeting of the Standing committee on October 13th, 2010:  The Chief Wildlife Warden had stated that no trees would be felled in the execution of the project. But this was wrong information. The CEC letter dated 04.10.2006 to the Chief Secretary, Government of HP had sought clarification on the number of trees to be felled, and the state government in its reply had stated that about 51,262 trees would be under the submergence area. Responsibility has to be fixed both on state/MOEF officials in order to prevent its recurrence.

3.   Proposal for diversion of 16.09 ha of forest land from Keladevi Wildlife Sanctuary for Dohari Minor Irrigation Project by Water Resource Department, Distt. Karauli, Rajasthan, brought up in the 22nd meeting of the Standing Committee held on April 25th, 2011: The state government withheld the critical fact that this is part of the Ranthambhore Tiger Reserve and even denied the same in the course of the April 25th meeting.  Responsibility has to be fixed both on state/MOEF officials in order to prevent its recurrence.

In spite of repeated requests, the agenda is not circulated to all National Board of Wildlife Members or put up on the website (this was discussed in the 21st meeting and approved by the Chair) to avail of the expertise of the wider conservation and scientific community.

In view of such facts, we suggest the following:

§        The agenda should reach us at least two weeks before the meeting as mandated by the notification of the Standing Committee, and should be copied to all members of the NBWL. This should include maps, surveys, Google maps etc. At present, we usually receive the complete agenda (with detailed information including maps, etc) just a day or so before the meeting as if that factual information provided should be substantial enough for rational decision-making.   It is also suggested that the proforma of the Forest Advisory Committee be made applicable to the proforma for Standing Committee meetings.

§        Each project proposal/plea for clearance must be presented to the Standing Committee with the Environmental Impact Analysis Report, the Forest Clearance details and the Project Report. The documents should be accompanied by the minutes of the meeting of the Environmental Appraisal Committee / Forest Advisory Committee concerning the project, together with any letter of clearance given. 

§        Full compliance with the Right to Information Act, 2005, particularly section 4 (1) (c) since the MOEF is not disclosing the relevant background material under which decisions were taken for clearing projects in/and around PAs. They also have to disclose the names of the officers who took part in the decision making process. This will ensure full transparency and accountability since the public as well as project proponents  would know the reasons why a particular project was cleared or rejected and who decided this.

§        Agenda items once rejected by the Standing Committee should not be brought back for discussion and clearance unless there is a court order to the contrary. This wastes the time of the Committee and undermines the authority of the Committee’s decisions.

§        There should be a proper mechanism for monitoring the conditions imposed while recommending the project proposals. An independent monitoring committee may be set up under each regional office of the MOEF.      

As per the notification, the committee’s mandate calls for promotion and conservation of wildlife, advising state governments on conservation, effective control of wildlife trade, recommendations in setting up PAs, advising on and control of activities in PAs. Most of us are doing this in an individual capacity but as a collective body our role frankly is minimal. The role of the NBWL is even less so, given that meetings are held about once a year, if that. The last full meeting of the NBWL was held in March, 2010 and more than a year has elapsed.

We are sorry to say that in the current scenario, the Standing Committee of the NBWL has been reduced to a clearing house.  Project clearances are part of the mandate of the Standing Committee, one of the duties and functions, certainly not the objective, nor its raison d’ĂȘtre.

We request you to please take note of our concerns and issue appropriate directions to ensure that the NBWL can fulfill its mandate properly and effectively.

A hard copy of this letter is being sent separately.

Yours sincerely,

1. Mr. Biswajit Mohanty,Wildlife Society of Orissa

2. Dr. Asad Rahmani, Bombay Natural History Society

3. Mr.Kishore Rithe, Satpuda Foundation

4. Mr. T.R. Shankar Raman, Nature Conservation Foundation

5. Dr. Bivabh Talukdar, Aranyaak

6. Dr. M.K.Ranjit Sinh

7. Dr. Divyabhanusinh Chavda

8. Mr. Brijendra Singh

9.  Mr. Valmik Thapar

10. Ms. Prerna Bindra

11. Mr. Bittu Sehgal

12. Ms. Mitali Kakkar

13. Dr. Uma Ramakrishnan