Representative photo: Nayan Bhalotia/Unsplash
- The Supreme Court has directed Odisha to implement a wildlife management plan before it allowed 97 stone quarries to operate near the Kuldiha Wildlife Sanctuary.
- The quarries got the licence to operate after the National Board for Wildlife cleared their proposal in 2017, on the condition that the operators implement a “wildlife management plan”.
- But an attendant ‘monitoring committee’, to supervise the plan, was never formed and a plan has still not been finalised – while quarrying activities kicked off.
- This is just one of a slew of recent instances in whichx important conditions attached to clearances have been barely monitored – and much less met.
Bengaluru: On March 2, the Supreme Court of India directed the Odisha government to implement a long-overdue wildlife management plan before it allowed 97 stone quarries to operate in the eco-sensitive zone of the Kuldiha Wildlife Sanctuary in the state.
The quarries got the licence to operate after the standing committee of the National Board for Wildlife cleared their proposal in March 2017. The sole condition that the committee imposed was for the quarry operators to implement a “Comprehensive Wildlife Management Plan” to mitigate the impact of quarrying and related transportation. The committee also said it would constitute “a monitoring committee comprising mines and environment departments” to implement the plan.
But the ‘monitoring committee’ was never formed and a plan has still not been finalised, according to Shankar Pani, an Odisha-based advocate with the National Green Tribunal – while quarrying activities commenced.
The Wire Science sent questions to minister Bikram Keshari Arukha, additional chief secretary Mona Sharma and special secretary (environment department) Susanta Nanda, of the Odisha government, enquiring about the committee’s status. Similar questions were also sent to Odisha’s director of mines Debidutta Biswal and mines department principal secretary Deoranjan Kumar Singh. None of them responded.
As it happened, quarry operators used the fact that the wildlife management plan wasn’t implemented and that the wildlife corridors hadn’t been notified as an excuse to seek more clearances. “They say ‘since there is no corridor, why are you not giving clearances?’” Biswajit Mohanty, an Odisha-based wildlife conservationist, said.
Quarrying activities occur in and around the Similipal-Kuldiha-Hadagarh corridor. It connects wildlife habitats across Mayurbhanj, Balasore and Keonjhar districts.
This is just one of a slew of recent instances in which important conditions attached to clearances have been barely monitored – and much less met.
‘Never come across’
In 2015, the Union environment ministry granted forest clearance for National Highway 7 (NH-7) on the condition that the Maharashtra forest department would undertake a compensatory afforestation exercise. NH-7 cuts through a crucial wildlife corridor that allows animals to move between the Kanha, the Pench and the Navegaon Nagzira Tiger Reserves.
But a recent Times of India investigation found poor implementation of the compensatory afforestation by the ministry’s Nagpur office. And this, when the National Highways Authority of India (NHAI) had already sanctioned and transferred Rs. 3.73 crore towards the exercise.
The newspaper also found that even though the diversion of reserve land had entailed the felling of over 20,000 trees, barely 500 trees that were planted in another area, to compensate for the loss, survived.
“After media reports, we formed a committee and we are surveying the plantations. We will take corrective action if we find that survival rates are low,” the deputy conservator of forests in Nagpur, Bharat Singh Hada, said.
As for whether the forest department monitors compensatory afforestation, Hada explained that the vigilance wing is the responsible entity. “This is part of regular assessments, so” – in addition to undertaking surveys now – “we have also asked for previous reports to see what they said,” he added.
Part of the blame also rests with the NHAI, Milind Pariwakam of the Srushti Paryavaran Mandal, an NGO, and of the IUCN Connectivity Conservation Specialist Group, said. “If you give a few crores of public money to somebody, would you not monitor how the money is spent?”
According to him, the NHAI should have been in charge of “doing the hard work of compensating for the trees it has felled.” The Wire Science’s questions about this to the Nagpur office of the NHAI didn’t elicit a response.
Similar issues arose in Arunachal Pradesh when the environment ministry asked the state to furnish compliance reports for compensatory afforestation vis-à-vis construction of the Lower Subansiri Hydroelectric Project.
“Despite the fact that the proposal was accorded in the year as early as 2004, i.e. about 17 years back, Compensatory Afforestation is yet to be done,” Sandeep Sharma, assistant inspector general of forests, wrote in a December 2021 letter. “It appears that the State Govt. is not making serious efforts in carrying out Compensatory Afforestation in lieu of the diversion.”
R.K. Singh, the principal chief conservator of forests in Arunachal, didn’t answer multiple phone calls requesting comment.
In all his years of following clearance processes, Pani, the advocate with the tribunal, said he has “never come across” committees that actually monitor conditions set at the time of grant of clearance.
No wonder then that in September 2021, the standing committee of the National Board for Wildlife held a meeting to discuss an agenda item entitled ‘Monitoring the implementation of the terms and conditions for approved projects’. Members of the committee raised serious questions over whether user agencies that obtained clearances actually complied with the pre-set conditions.
The meeting ended with a recommendation to the Union environment ministry to request the country’s chief wildlife wardens to submit compliance certificates by November 20, 2021, regarding conditions imposed by the standing committees on projects recommended in the last 10 years. The board’s members also decided to hold a physical meeting with the wardens after that date.
In response to questions about whether the standing committee actually met with chief wildlife wardens and whether the wardens submitted compliance reports, Raman Sukumar, a member of the committee said he wasn’t aware “if the office of the [committee] had a discussion with chief wildlife wardens” and that he has “not yet seen any compliance reports which may have been submitted to the ministry.”
Questions to the environment ministry secretary and to the additional director general of forests (wildlife) at the environment ministry, who’s also secretary to the standing committee, went unanswered.
The committee has met once since then, in December 2021, and again cleared a number of proposals attached with conditions.
“The primary responsibility for ensuring compliance should lie with the respective states,” Sukumar added. He suggested that the chief wildlife wardens should set up a mechanism to ensure compliance and that the Centre and the standing committee undertake random checks – “especially the larger and more sensitive ones”.
But the issue runs even deeper. “The process adopted for granting clearances has been considerably diluted,” Praveen Bhargav, a former member of the National Board for Wildlife, said. Fundamentally, according to him, every project proposal must first be carefully tested on the touchstones of redundancy, site specificity and available alternatives – “so that forest land and protected areas are not required to be diverted at all”.
As for the issue at hand, Bhargav said that “the continued non-compliance” of the Supreme Court’s judgement in the Lafarge case (1995) to appoint a ‘National Regulator’ to enforce conditions and to impose penalties for violations “is the real problem”.
Unless an independently empowered ‘National Regulator’ is appointed, he added, this vital aspect of monitoring violations will suffer, to the detriment of conservation and also cause financial loss to the exchequer – as in the Bellary mining scam.
Note: This article was updated at 5:07 pm on March 19, 2022, to include Raman Sukumar’s comments.
Rishika Pardikar is a freelance journalist in Bengaluru.