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Researchers at WII Fear for Academic Freedom With New Govt Interference

Researchers at WII Fear for Academic Freedom With New Govt Interference

Dark clouds over the Wildlife Institute of India, Dehradun. Photo: Harendra Dagar/Flickr, CC BY 2.0

  • The Union environment ministry has asked the Wildlife Institute of India to seek the ministry’s approval before it publishes any documents.
  • Researchers and scientists both within and beyond the institute are wary that the move will undermine its academic and research integrity.
  • One bureaucrat said an institute report that had embarrassed the government in the Supreme Court could have been the likely trigger.

New Delhi: On April 18, the wildlife division of the Ministry of Environment, Forests and Climate Change wrote a letter to the Wildlife Institute of India in Dehradun with a rather innocuous subject line: “Publication of documents by Wildlife Institute of India- approvals-reg.”

What the seemingly routine subject line obscured was that the national government was bluntly asking an autonomous body to run its scientific findings past the officialdom before being made public.

It was for the first time in the Wildlife Institute of India (WII) existence (since 1986)  that it was being asked to have its reports and publications approved by the Union environment ministry.

WII is one of India’s premier research institutions focused on wildlife conservation and environmental impact.

“All WII reports are joint reports with the ministry. So it came as a surprise to us as well,” said Y.V. Jhala, dean of the faculty of wildlife science at WII. “It is not very clear what the ministry wants.”

Jhala told The Wire Science that most of WII’s reports and studies are in the public domain and that they “don’t undertake any secretive work.”

The last point in the ministry letter directed the WII to seek the ministry’s approval for documents and publications that had already been placed in the public domain – effectively subjecting them to retrospective scrutiny. Jhala, however, said he isn’t clear how WII will have to change its processes.

Excerpt from the environment ministry’s letter to WII directing the latter to seek the ministry’s approval even for documents/publications that have already been published

Understanding the magnitude of implications of the ministry’s letter  requires us to revisit the history of WII and what it does as an autonomous institution.

Autonomy of WII

The government first approved the Wildlife Institute of India as a subordinate office under the Ministry of Agriculture on May 22, 1982. Four years later, on February 11, 1986, it was made an autonomous institution under the wildlife division of the department of Environment, Forests and Wildlife – at the time under Krishi Bhavan.

Today, the institute functions under the wildlife division of the Union environment ministry and is funded by it.

“The autonomy is not financial as the institute has always been dependent on the ministry for funds,” wildlife biologist M.D. Madhusudan, who co-founded the Nature Conservation Foundation and is a former student of WII, said. “The autonomy therefore lies elsewhere.”

WII is a research body, so its  independence is important for the integrity of the reports it produces.

Nonetheless, governments have traditionally valued the institute’s autonomy even when supporting them financially,” Madhusudan added.

Union environment minister Bhupender Yadav at the COP26 summit in Glasgow, November 13, 2021. Photo: Reuters/Phil Noble

The Union government and various courts have often commissioned WII to study the impact of development activities and projects and draft plans to mitigate their effects on biodiversity and wildlife.

Its relative autonomy has in the past pitted the institute’s findings against those of various government departments.

In 2005,  reports emerged that tigers had become extinct from the Sariska Tiger Reserve. The finding questioned government narratives and raised a furore. A.J.T. Johnsingh, a faculty member at WII, ascertained that the tiger reserve had no tigers within. Until the WII report came out, the tiger reserve had been counting alleged tiger pug-marks as proof of living tigers and kept the numbers alive in bureaucratic records.

Eight tigers were later reintroduced from 2008 to 2013 as a result.

“It is instances such as these that underline the need for autonomy,” Madhusudan said. “Science is an enterprise of organised scepticism that thrives on scrutiny (of evidence) and challenge (of authority).”

What prompted the letter?

There isn’t a clear explanation for the ministry’s letter to WII.

“You will never get them to explain the actual reasons,” a former bureaucrat who once worked with the ministry said, while requesting anonymity – referring to the questions sent to minister Bhupender Yadav and officials in the environment ministry’s forest and wildlife wing pursuant to this report.

He  pointed in particular to recent developments in the Supreme Court, where a WII report had embarrassed the government and which he said could have been the trigger. It involved a bird, renewable power plants and overhead power transmission lines in western India.

The case pertains to a petition that described how overhead power lines were becoming the leading cause of death among the great Indian bustards (GIB) – large flightless birds found only in Rajasthan and Gujarat.

GIBs are nearing extinction: only an estimated 128 individuals currently exist in the world. The Union environment ministry itself runs special conservation programmes to protect the birds in what remains of their unique habitat.

As it happens, this habitat also overlaps with an area of high interest to India’s burgeoning community of wind and solar power producers. Adani Power, for example, has a 40-MW solar power plant in the works in Bitta, Kutch. Other companies that have projects in the region include ReNew Power Pvt. and Acme Solar Holdings.

In October 2018, WII published its ‘Power-line Mitigation Report’. Based on the birds’ sideways vision, it concluded  that GIBs were susceptible to flying into overhead power-lines and suffered a high mortality as a result (16 GIB deaths per year among a population of about 128 individuals, give or take 19).

The researchers called the GIBs’ high mortality rate unsustainable and concluded that “unless power-lines mortality is mitigated urgently, extinction of GIB is certain”

A plea filed in the Supreme Court on July 15, 2019, in the matter of M.K. Ranjitsinh & Ors. versus Union of India & Ors, asked that the government protect the two species of birds found in the region – the GIBs and the lesser florican, which is also on the verge of extinction.

The petition also sought interim directions to the states of Rajasthan and Gujarat to not permit the installation of overhead power lines and to disallow further construction of windmills and solar infrastructure in potential bird habitats, as identified by WII. The petitioners quoted WII’s report in support:

The WII report, “Power Line Mitigation, 2018”, was quoted in a writ petition that sought measures to protect the great Indian bustard

The same report became a cause for headaches for the government in another matter.

In April 2019, in a separate case filed with the National Green Tribunal (NGT), and which also quoted the WII report, noted that  one lakh birds die every year after flying into overhead power lines. In response,  the NGT ordered the environment ministry to submit a factual report.

The ministry commissioned WII to prepare this report, and the institute did and submitted it to the NGT.

A year later, on December 23, 2020, the NGT  directed the installation of diverters on existing power lines and to move new power lines underground, and disposed of the case.

The report prepared by WII and its recommendations to NGT were quoted in the Supreme Court case as well

On April 19, 2021, the Supreme Court’s order read: “low voltage overhead powerlines existing presently in the priority and potential habitats of GIB, the same shall be converted into underground powerlines.” In total 1,642 km of power lines were to be affected.

The Supreme Court’s list of power lines that will be affected

In the same order, the court constituted a three-member expert committee to assess the feasibility of laying high-voltage underground power lines. The committee submitted its status report on April 20, 2022.

After major solar power players reportedly planned to approach the apex court for partial relief, two associations of renewable power producers – Solar Power Developers Association and Wind Independent Power Producers Association also filed a clutch of interlocutory applications.

These producers included Adani Solar, Aditya Birla, Essar Power, Hero Future Energies, Huawei Telecommunications and Tata Capital.

On April 20 – the same day the court’s committee submitted its status report – the Supreme Court directed the governments of Rajasthan and Gujarat to install bird-diverters on power lines before July 20, when the petition is set to be heard next.

The recommendations of the report submitted by WII to the NGT that proved to be the basis for the Supreme Court’s judgement

In another recent instance, another WII report also revealed grounds for criticism of the government. In Chhattisgarh’s contentious Hasdeo Arand matter, a WII report recommended a stop to new mines in the entire Hasdeo-Arand coal fields (HCAF), but which the Union  and state governments ignored.

The Chhattisgarh government in particular allocated the second phase of Parsa East Kente Basan (PEKB) coal block on March 25 and the adjacent Parsa coal block on April 6 to the Rajasthan Rajya Vidyut Utpadan Nigam Limited. Both PEKB and Parsa coal blocks fall within the HCAF, and the mine and developer-operator for all the blocks in HCAF is Adani Enterprises.

In response to  a question that the NGT had raised, the WII report said that except for a coal block that had already been opened for mining, other areas should be declared “no-go areas” and that “no mining should be carried out considering the irreplaceable, rich biodiversity and socio-cultural values” there.

However, the Union and state governments cherry-picked a report by the Indian Council of Forestry Research and Education, which said four new mines could be opened, to issue mining clearances.

Gag order on research?

The Wildlife Institute of India, Dehradun. Photo: WII/Facebook

“WII is an institution under the ministry and follows the norms required [of] government institutions,” Jhala said about the future course of action at WII. He also told The Wire Science that ministry officials were yet to say anything else to him about the directive as well as that WII is yet to seek further clarifications from the ministry.

Those currently working at WII were also measured with their speculation.For example, a scientist at WII who spoke on condition of anonymity said that they “can’t say [the 2018 WII report] alone was the reason behind the letter”.

But they’re all agreed that  the move is stifling and portends a loss of independence.

The former bureaucrat even called the ministry’s letter an unprecedented “gag order” on scientific work.

The ecologist Madhav Gadgil, founder of the Centre for Ecological Sciences, a research forum at the Indian Institute of Science, called it a part of an overarching move to suppress information.

“This is completely improper and inappropriate,” he said. He also accused the government of trying to suppress scientific research and called it “highly regrettable that scientific temper is being stifled in this manner”.

Another ecologist who has worked on biodiversity conservation (and who didn’t wish to be named) called the ministry’s letter the final nail on the coffin of independent research.

“As WII is a premier institute, if their report says a government initiative is harmful, it carries weight in the courts. It is the only nationally recognised institute of its nature,” they said.

Apart from the concerns about WII’s independence, Gadgil also expressed belief that  the demand to seek approval for already published reports and papers suggests that the ministry is planning something more.

“They will take the reports off the website. Look what happened to the ‘Western Ghats Ecology Expert Panel’ report,” Gadgil, who chaired the committee that drafted the report, said.

The report had recommended that 64% of the Western Ghats be declared an ecologically sensitive area. The environment ministry recently took it off its website.

“What is the need of a scientific body if its job is merely to be a cheerleader to the government?” Madhusudan asked. He also expressed fear that, as a result, India will be saddled with an institution that will always say the government is right.

And that is where the premier environmental research institute of a megadiverse country seems headed.

Note: The dateline is that of Land Conflict Watch.

Jeff Joseph is a researcher with Land Conflict Watch, an independent network of researchers studying land conflicts, climate change and natural resource governance in India. He is on Twitter at @jeffjoseff.

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