Featured image: Union environment minister Prakash Javadekar. Photo: PTI.
Sometime during the second or third iteration of India’s nationwide lockdown, many of us hoped our forests and wildlife would get a break from air and noise pollution.
However, the standing committee of the National Board for Wildlife (NBWL), whose role is to advise the Centre on wildlife conservation measures and review projects in and around protected areas, delivered bad news for the same forests and wildlife extending well beyond the lockdown.
The NBWL is chaired by the prime minister – and hasn’t met once since 2014. The standing committee has been making decisions about projects that impact India’s biodiversity. On April 7, amid the strict nationwide lockdown, members of the committee had a virtual meeting for projects inside or 10 km from protected areas. They granted in-principle approval to 26 projects, entailing a total clearance of over 3,000 ha of India’s forests.
What are these projects? You’ve likely heard of a few, such as the open-cast coal mine in the Dehing Patkai Wildlife Sanctuary in Assam, and the transmission lines and highway cutting up the Bhagwan Mahavir Wildlife Sanctuary in Goa.
Most of these projects have slipped under the radar, however, including the Lakhwar dam on the Yamuna river. Environmentalists have contested this dam for years. It’s situated in a seismically active zone, and its construction will require 873 ha of land near Benog Wildlife Sanctuary to be cleared. That’s more than a 100-times the size of the proposed Central Vista project in Delhi – which, by the way, will be at risk of flooding if the dam fails. In addition, it will alter the river’s natural flow and its ecology.
This meeting also recommended 10 different proposals for stone and limestone mining within the ecologically sensitive zone around Mukundra Tiger Reserve in Rajasthan, covering over 970 ha. And this way, the standing committee and the NBWL have been auctioning off our natural heritage in the name of development. The following story map, based on the minutes of the April 7 meeting, walks you through each project.
Map by Anand Srinivasan and Nandini Mehrotra
In the final analysis, it’s imperative that we engage with environmental issues now, especially since the new draft of the Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) notification, whose comments period ends on June 30, will systematically reduce opportunities for the people to have a say in projects that may directly affect them. The recent blowout, and subsequent fire that destroyed a village and killed two people, at the Baghjan oil well and the styrene gas leak in Visakhapatnam are only proof of what happens in the event of regulatory failure.
Note: A shorter form of this article was published by Tech for Wildlife on June 10; the longer version has been published here with permission.
Nandini Mehrotra is a conservation policy specialist, spatial analyst and drone pilot-in-training. Shashank Srinivasan is a conservation geographer and drone pilot. They are researcher and director, respectively, at Tech For Wildlife, a geospatial data consultancy with expertise in the conservation of the natural environment.