GUWAHATI, May 21 - National Board of Wildlife (NBWL)’s hasty and insensitive clearance of coal mining on an unbroken part of forest falling under the Dehing Patkai Elephant Reserve may have shocked many but the apex wildlife body’s decision merely follows what has been a discernible yet disturbing trend for the past six years.
Since August 2014, some 99 per cent of the proposals that involved clearance for industrial or infrastructure development projects falling in wildlife habitat have been approved by the NBWL.
Such has been the undue haste shown by NBWL in undermining forest and wildlife concerns and facilitating ‘development’ projects that many conservationists, including those formerly associated with it have cried foul over the manner and approach of its functioning.
To make matters worse, the three-year term of the NBWL constituted in August 2014 expired long back, but the same standing committee continues to operate in violation of laid-down rules. As per rules, the first meeting of the newly-constituted NBWL should select the standing committee members but that practice has stopped.
“NBWL or its standing committee unfortunately rarely talks of wildlife and their concerns anymore whereas the interests of conservation should have been its guiding principle. Of late almost all the meetings on the standing committee’s agenda have been giving clearance to every development project, riding roughshod over genuine wildlife and environmental concerns,” a former NBWL member wishing anonymity told The Assam Tribune.
Clearances have been given as quickly as in ten minutes of a meeting.
He added that the functioning of NBWL leaves none in any doubt whatsoever that it is toeing the lines of the Central government that swears by development at any cost, making it a routine to override environmental concerns in the process.
According to the response to a Lok Sabha query last year, NBWL – charged with allowing forestland even in protected areas (national parks and wildlife sanctuaries) to be diverted for industry – cleared 682 of the 687 projects (99.82 per cent) that came up for scrutiny. In fact, only five projects had been rejected since August 2014.
Another wildlife expert, who is a former NBWL member, spoke in similar lines describing it as a “clearance house”.
Accusing the Union Environment and Forest Ministry of delegating all powers of NBWL to a compliant standing committee which regularly meets and clears projects in protected areas, the former member said the results of such an approach would spell disaster for wildlife and their habitat.
A string of recommendations, including those on Dehing Patkai, Dibang Valley in Arunachal Pradesh and other similar projects across the country, has made environmentalists voice serious concern over NBWL’s functioning.
Conservationists have also questioned the rationale behind hasty decisions taken through hurriedly convened video conferences during the nationwide lockdown.
“Why is such a hurry to push through projects that are damaging forests and the environment? It is also difficult to scrutinise maps on a video call nor is there any scope to ask questions or seek clarifications from officials,” he said.
The NBWL, formally headed by the Prime Minister but generally chaired by the Environment and Forest Minister in meetings, adjudicates on industrial projects, road diversions, etc., that could encroach into protected areas or eco-sensitive zones of forests.
It is supposed to be an autonomous body but its functions make it clear that it is no longer so, rued the activist.