Featured image: A mural depicting two tigers. Credit: nagarjun/Flickr, CC BY 2.0.
The negligent and hasty grant of wildlife clearances for the destruction of over 170 ha of forest land within the Bhagwan Mahavir Wildlife Sanctuary and Mollem National Park in Goa paints a distressing picture of the future of our protected areas. By failing to carry out their statutory duty, the state and National Wildlife Boards have reduced themselves to redundant entities.
With a tigress and three cubs found dead in the Mhadei Wildlife Sanctuary, 2020 began on a tragic note for Goa’s wildlife. The tigers were allegedly poisoned by some residents of Goulali village in a case of human-wildlife conflict over killed cattle. But the National Tiger Conservation Authority’s report on the issue highlighted the mismanagement of Goa’s protected areas and the poor performance of wildlife authorities, and unequivocally recommended that tiger reserves be declared in the state.
Similar recommendations were made in 2011 and 2016, but Goa still has no notified tiger reserves. Whether vested interests are to blame or bureaucratic delay, one can only hope that the deaths of four tigers will serve as a loud wake up call to those that are legally bound to protect our wildlife.
The reality, however, is starkly different.
A case in point: In one fell swoop, the Goa State Wildlife Board (GSWB) and the National Board for Wildlife (NBWL) have opened up the Bhagwan Mahavir Wildlife Sanctuary to three linear projects: expansion of a two-lane national highway (4A), doubling of the Castlerock-Kulem-Madgaon railway track, and a 400-kV power transmission line. Together, these projects require the diversion of over 170 ha of protected forest land in the same sanctuary. All three proposals have been approved without any real cross-examination; two, in fact, were brazenly approved by the NBWL at a meeting held via video conference after the coronavirus pandemic was well underway.
The Bhagwan Mahavir Wildlife Sanctuary and Mollem National Park are part of a network of wildlife habitats that extend beyond state borders, into the Anshi Dandeli Wildlife Sanctuary in Karnataka and the Bhimgad Wildlife Sanctuary in Maharashtra. They are also contiguous with four other sanctuaries in the state.
The notification of an area as a wildlife sanctuary or national park brings with it immense statutory protection. No diversion of land can be permitted unless it benefits wildlife or the management of their habitats. However, public infrastructure projects have historically been allowed, thanks to environment ministry guidelines that allow such development to be considered in “the most exceptional of circumstances”. And while guidelines can’t override the law, the decision-making power lies with the wildlife boards. So development within protected areas continues because wildlife boards permit it.
It’s the wildlife boards’ duty to scrutinise projects proposed within protected areas while keeping the wildlife’s best interests at heart. However, project proponents needn’t fret: both state boards and the NBWL have long forgotten their mandate. Legal Initiative for Forest and Environment, an NGO, studied wildlife clearances granted between January and June, 2019, and found that the NBWL had approved the diversion of 216.18 ha in protected areas even though no project promised benefits to the wildlife or their habitats. If the expeditious grant of wildlife clearances for the three linear projects in Goa are anything to go by, the trend hasn’t stopped.
Scrutiny a mere formality
While the state board approved the railway line proposal in December 2017, the highway and transmission projects were approved in December 2019, at a meeting convened at the residence of Chief Minister Pramod Sawant.
There is no doubt that three linear infrastructure projects that will fragment a contiguous network of wildlife habitats will be destructive, not beneficial, to the protected area or the wildlife that depends on it. An impact report of each of the three projects, prepared by the deputy conservator of forest, details several negative impacts these projects will have, including “every possibility to cause severe damage to the fragile forest ecosystem by soil erosion and landslides, degrade soil quality, and deplete aquatic reservoirs and water catchments of rivers on which wildlife and people depend.” Surprisingly, these findings find no mention in the minutes of the wildlife boards’ meetings.
Instead, all three projects – despite failing to demonstrate any exceptional circumstances and unavoidability – were approved as soon as an environmental impact assessment (EIA) report was placed before the state board. Taking the time to actually study the contents of these reports appears to have been unnecessary.
In fact, in a letter, some members of the board raised several objections with the chief wildlife warden vis-à-vis the 2019 meeting. They wrote that the EIA reports were not even circulated among members and that the notes on the agenda were handed over at the start of the meeting, not earlier. This is particularly worrying: this was the first meeting of a recently reconstituted board with several new members completely uninformed about the projects at hand. The letter also highlighted a conflict of interest: the presentations in support of the projects had been made by the forest department instead of the project proponents. The chief minister and the chief wildlife warden, instead of questioning the project proponents, also vouched for some projects.
But the members who objected to the flawed decision-making process couldn’t influence the state board’s final decision, and the projects were placed before the NBWL without any reference to these objections. And the NBWL approved all three projects at the first opportunity, in virtual meetings. The railway line was approved in December 2019, and the highway and transmission projects in April 2020. Anyone who has been a part of meetings via video conference can attest to the fact that it would be impossible to properly examine such projects virtually; some members of the NBWL have also been vocal in the press about this.
Examining each proposal actually reveals many shortcomings. For example, because it is mandatory to obtain an environmental clearance for highways, with an exemption being available only for those less than 100 km long, the work to expand the 153-km-long NH 4A into four lanes has been divided into two projects, in Goa and Karnataka. Further, the part of the highway through the sanctuary in Goa has described as necessary even though a 13-km stretch at the Karnataka end, through the Anshi Dandeli Wildlife Sanctuary, has rightly been excluded from the four-lane expansion process. No such recommendation was contemplated for Goa.
The EIA report for the project doesn’t attempt to evaluate the impact on wildlife, instead declaring that there will be “no impact” on the wildlife during the construction phase “as there are no endangered or extinct species in the protected area”. Apart from the fact that this claim is false, the impact of a project through the protected area can’t be calculated based merely on the existence of endangered species. In an even more ludicrous turn, the report suggests that after construction, wildlife may increase in number as the underpasses would provide “a new habitat” for them. That such a laughably unscientific report passed the scrutiny of two statutorily constituted wildlife boards is astounding. This report should have been rejected outright.
The EIA report for the railway line project discloses multiple disastrous consequences of the project. However, the boards have been appeased by the most minimal mitigation measures: wildlife crossings. While such mechanisms may in a few instances provide some relief, the inability of wild animals to cross busy highways or railways is only one of many ways in which such projects threaten them. No other impacts and consequential mitigation measures have even been discussed.
In extraordinary circumstances, mitigation measures act only to reduce the impact of such projects. They can’t negate the projects’ adverse effects entirely, and must not be construed as an enabling mechanism to approve non-essential infrastructure projects within protected areas – that, indeed, are required by law to be conserved for wildlife.
Projects that fragment wildlife habitats leave no option for animals but to drift closer to human settlements, only to exacerbate human-wildlife conflicts – like the tigress and three cubs found dead in Mhadei early this year. The current legal framework, though far from perfect, offers some strong statutory protections against human-centric activities and development, at least within notified wildlife habitats. So when such habitats are not properly implemented, these provisions remain confined to the paper they are written on.
It thus falls upon the civil society to stay vigilant and keep statutory authorities accountable. In the interests of intergenerational equity and sustainable development, we owe this to our future generations – but we must not forget that we are also owed this by the officials and institutions tasked with the responsibility to safeguard our natural wealth.
Anamika Gode is an environmental lawyer based in Goa and has been the legal counsel for the Goa Foundation since 2016.