Melghat Tiger Reserve (Maharashtra) and New Delhi: In the middle of the railway tracks that cut through the core of Maharashtra's Melghat Tiger Reserve in the forested heart of India, lay a blob of carnivore scat--two or three days old, blackish, bristling with sambar hair, enough to fill a quarter plate.
It could be leopard--a DNA test could tell--but was more likely to have come from a tiger, given their consistent presence in the Wan Wildlife Sanctuary that forms part of Melghat. Foresters in the nearby range office spoke of regular sightings of at least one male and two female tigers. One tracker said he had seen a tigress with cub, about a year old, crossing the track just beyond Wan tunnel about a month back.
There were other clues, and sightings, of other fauna: Leopard and tiger tracks on the approach road to Wan; a lone sambar, a herd of gaur; marks on the bark of an Ashoka tree indicating that a sloth bear had used the bark to sharpen its claws. A small drab bird took flight--a Forest Owlet, the Athene blewitti thought to be extinct until rediscovered in Melghat in 1997, 113 years after it had last been sighted in 1884. The largest of the owlet's small, fragmented population of 250-900 birds is found here in Melghat.
A Forest Owlet, the Athene blewitti thought to be extinct until rediscovered in Melghat in 1997, 113 years after it was last sighted in 1884. The largest of the owlet's small, fragmented population of 250-900 birds is found here in Melghat, Maharashtra, now threatened by the proposed broadening of a railway line.
It is also the safest such population, not only because this is a 'Protected Area'--where commercial exploitation and construction activities are prohibited and strictly regulated by law--but also because there is no human habitation in the 206 sq km of the Wan Sanctuary. There is no din, no disturbance, except for the odd train--four every 24 hours.
Yet, there is little joy in finding rare wildlife in the dense, lush forests of Melghat, only a sense of impending disaster. With a proposal to widen the 176-km Akola-to-Khandawa railway from metre gauge to broad gauge, 39 km of which passes through the reserve, both traffic and speed of trains are expected to increase, threatening more accidents, wildlife mortality and fragmentation of habitat, thereby isolating wildlife populations on either side of the tracks. Isolating populations can lead to genetic decay over generations in the long term. The logical end of such splintering of habitat is the local extinction of tigers, and other large, wide-ranging animals.
This wildlife-endangering track expansion was approved by India's apex conservation body, the Standing Committee of the National Board for Wildlife (SC-NBWL) at its 40th meeting on January 3, 2017. This made it one of the 519 projects cleared in India's Protected Areas and their 'Eco-Sensitive Zones' by the NBWL over the four years of the Narendra Modi-led National Democratic Alliance (NDA) government between June 2014 and May 2018. In comparison, the preceding United Progressive Alliance (UPA) government had cleared 260 projects between 2009 and 2013.
In the months to come, a multi-part IndiaSpend series will investigate how the fast-tracking of developmental projects threatens India's last wild areas, the country's water resources and hastens local and global warming.
The NBWL is responsible for framing India's policy and strategy for wildlife conservation. One of its key tasks is to regulate development projects to safeguard wildlife, but in the last four years it has rarely rejected any damaging projects in designated Protected Areas and has instead fast-tracked wildlife clearances to facilitate the ease of doing business--allowing highways, roads, railway lines, dams, mines, real estate, canals and other infrastructure projects in reserves.
These clearances are often given without scrutiny and in violation of the Wildlife (Protection) Act of 1972, conservationists said, because the law only provides for any diversion of land in in a national park, sanctuary or reserve if it benefits wildlife or for its better management.
The minutes of 17 meetings--accessed by IndiaSpend--over four years to 2018 reveal that the SC-NBWL has, on average, placed about more than 40 proposals on the table in a meeting that typically lasts a few hours. The average number of proposals cleared was 28.
Activists argue that such hasty, ill-thought decisions speak of a lack of concern for wildlife and place at risk a variety of endangered species, including tigers, elephants, leopards, vultures, flamingos, hornbills, gharials and dolphins.
The clearances chip away at India's increasingly fragmented protected areas, which, as a proportion of the country's land area, amount to 4.9% (under the Protected Area network), just about half of the global average of 9.3%.
Protected Areas provide vital ecosystem services--they are the last repositories of valuable biodiversity, serve as watersheds and help mitigate climate change by sequestering carbon. Worldwide, Protected Areas store 15% of the global terrestrial carbon stock, helping reduce deforestation, habitat and species loss, and supporting the livelihoods of over one billion people.
Only 1.1% projects in sensitive habitats rejected
As per the Wildlife (Protection) Act and orders of the Supreme Court, the NBWL is a statutory body chaired by the prime minister to frame and monitor conservation policies and regulate projects in Protected Areas and Eco-Sensitive Zones with a view to safeguarding wildlife.
Since it is impractical for all 47 NBWL members to meet frequently, the standing committee (SC-NBWL) meets every three months. The law mandates a majority of expert independent members of the board to enable its independence. However, its negligible rejection rate has "converted the NBWL into a project-clearing house", as former NBWL member Praveen Bhargav wrote in The Hindu in September 2016.
The rate of clearances granted by the SC-NBWL has accelerated sharply under the Modi government, which views such checks and balances as "speed breakers and roadblocks to development", as the Indian Express quoted the then environment minister, Prakash Javadekar, as saying in July 2014.
No more than 1.1% projects were rejected, on average, annually between June 2014 and May 2018, dropping from 11.9% under the previous UPA government between 2009 and 2013, according to a recent analysis by the Delhi-based advocacy, Centre for Science & Environment. This works out to 130 proposals recommended, on average, every year--more than double the 52 during the second tenure of the second UPA government (UPA-II).
Source: Centre for Science & Environment
The overall loss of wildlife habitat is 24,329 ha--an area twice the size of Chandigarh. This represents only the actual land diverted. Such projects influence a far larger area due to the disturbance caused by blasting, construction, influx of labour and ancillary development such as roads, settlements, etc. Also, the minutes of committee meetings do not provide the area of each project under consideration.
Source: Centre for Science & Environment
In its first meeting in August 2014, the reconstituted SC-NBWL--a board serves a three-year term before being reconstituted--cleared 133 projects and rejected one. The then environment minister Javadekar reportedly said projects could not be held up due to "frivolous reasons". One of the projects cleared at this meeting was the construction of the Gaduli-Santalpur road in Gujarat's Kutch Desert Wildlife Sanctuary, which hosts thousands of flamingos and was named 'Flamingo City' by the late ornithologist Salim Ali.
The Kutch sanctuary is the only known nesting site of flamingos in India. Flamingos you might see across the country, be it at Chilika Lake in Odisha, Najafgarh in Delhi, Sewri in Mumbai or Pulicat Lake in Tamil Nadu, all wing their way here to their nesting grounds. A site visit report submitted to the NBWL stated that construction of the road would upset the fragile aquatic ecosystem crucial for flamingos, leading them to abandon the site, possibly dooming existence of the bird in the subcontinent.
In August 2014, the Standing Committee of the National Board for Wildlife cleared 133 projects and rejected one. One of the projects approved, the Gaduli-Santalpur road through the Kutch Wildlife Sanctuary, Gujarat, threatens the only known nesting site of flamingos in India.
It was for this reason that the earlier Standing Committee had advised against "constructing it under any circumstance".
The minutes of 17 meetings that IndiaSpend studied appear to reflect little consideration of the widespread impacts of the SC-NBWL's decisions.
Dividing one of India's oldest, largest tiger reserves
The consequences of widening the railway line in Melghat were ignored as well, even as forest officers and the National Tiger Conservation Authority (NTCA) advised against it. The "digging of tunnel, blasting with explosives, civil works requiring heavy machinery will have irreparable losses to wildlife, especially tiger", warned M.S. Reddy, the then deputy conservator of forests for wildlife posted in Melghat, in a letter dated March 3, 2011, reviewed by IndiaSpend.
In a subsequent letter written in July 2015, the state's chief wildlife warden also strongly advised against the project, as widening the railway line "further divides otherwise contiguous tiger habitat". However, he later reversed his stance.
At 2,769 sq km, Melghat is one of the country's largest and oldest reserves, notified in 1973 when Project Tiger was launched. The railway line runs 39 km through Melghat with a 17.3-km stretch passing through the reserve's core critical tiger habitat, which has to be inviolate for tiger conservation under the law.
The National Board for Wildlife approved the broadening of a railway line that would fragment the Melghat Tiger Reserve in Maharashtra and reverse the recovery of tiger populations achieved through massive efforts and spending.
To this purpose, six villages from areas adjacent to the train tracks have been voluntarily relocated at a cost of over Rs 200 crore. With the relocation and the removal of anthropogenic pressures, the fields are now pristine meadows, flush with new grasses attracting herbivores such as cheetal that were rarely seen earlier. Where there is prey, predators follow. "The population of tiger has also shown an increase from 3 tigers in 2012 to 8 in the year 2015 in and adjoining Wan Sanctuary," the Chief Wildlife Warden noted in a 2015 site report. These numbers are believed to have gone up further in the census conducted between November 17 and February 2018, though the results are yet to be revealed.
"This recovery of tigers will suffer a massive setback, reverse the benefits accrued if the gauge conversion goes ahead," a forest officer told IndiaSpend, requesting anonymity. "To even consider it especially after the effort, expense, as well as the sacrifice of the villages who shifted out of the reserve is unthinkable."
Greater frequency of trains will also mean increased access for hunting and poaching.
"The train route has been used for illegal trade of wildlife derivatives--including tiger and leopard skins, medicinal plants and timber. With increase in traffic, this will only accelerate," warned Kishore Rithe, member of Maharashtra's State Board for Wildlife, pointing out that the train route facilitated the accused in a tiger poaching case in 2014. "The consistent disturbance of rail traffic may also force wildlife to abandon this site."
The decision of the SC-NBWL is even more untenable as there is an alternate route available, which will connect 100 villages and a population of 250,000 people, as against just nine villages with no more than 6,000 people if it passes through Melghat. This is advocated by both the NTCA and Reddy, the former deputy conservator of forests for wildlife at Melghat, who in his 2011 note pleaded with the railways to opt for the alternative alignment to avoid "irreparable damage to our national treasure and to save our national animal".
The SC-NBWL has nonetheless gone ahead and approved expansion of the railway line, based on loss of forest outside of the reserve and escalation of project cost along the alternative route. This has been challenged, with the Supreme Court's Central Empowered Committee (CEC) saying the recommendation "lacks application of mind and is prima facie not in the interest of protecting wildlife and its habitats".
The CEC's mandate is to scrutinise the decisions of the SC-NBWL and raise objections if it finds decisions to be damaging to wildlife.
Drowning Panna's tigers--and vultures
Another decision widely criticised was the clearance given to the Ken-Betwa river linking project inside the Panna Tiger Reserve in Madhya Pradesh at its 39th meeting in August 2016. "The project if approved will lead the death of Panna Tiger Reserve," said Sreenivas Murthy, a forest official then the field director of Panna, in a September 2014 note to the NTCA, which was accessed by IndiaSpend.
The Rs 18,000-crore project involves building a 2 km-long and 77 m-high Daudhan Dam in the heart of Panna, affecting at least 28% of the reserve's core critical tiger habitat. There are breeding tigers in the 89 sq km of forest expected to be submerged, and it will also drown the nesting sites of critically endangered vultures whose population has declined by 97% in about 15 years. Other endangered, Schedule I species--which are offered the highest protection under the law, such as the tiger--that will be impacted include leopard, wolf, wild dog, chausingha, gharial, mahseer-fish and India's smallest wild cat, the rusty-spotted.
The SC-NBWL discounted Murthy's warning--the irreversible damage to wildlife habitat, and the massive effort and expenditure to rebuild Panna's tiger population, painstakingly built up to over 40 from local extinction in 2008-09--in clearing the Ken-Betwa link.
The application to the CEC questioned this authority of the SC-NBWL to allow diversion of land in Panna National Park. The Wildlife Protection Act unambiguously prohibits granting permission to any activity that destroys wildlife and damages or diverts its habitat, unless it is for the improvement or better management of wildlife therein. "There is nothing in the (Ken-Betwa link) plan which remotely suggests that it is for the better management and improvement of wildlife," noted the petition filed by the founder-editor of Sanctuary Asia, Bittu Sahgal, and retired Indian Forest Service officer Manoj Mishra.
But the CEC has failed to prevent, or even question, the clearance. "The CEC application was filed in February 2017, but it is yet to give its report in spite of several reminders ," environment lawyer Ritwick Dutta told IndiaSpend. Dutta pointed out that "to date the CEC has not opposed or objected to any decision of the SC-NBWL and has become a rubber stamp as well".
The Supreme Court has asked the to CEC submit its report by October 31, 2018.
An exhaustive scrutiny of the minutes of meetings over the last several years reveals that few, if any, of the approvals to divert Protected Areas are backed by evidence that they benefit wildlife.
The committee has granted clearances, setting aside earlier rejections that the project concerned would endanger wildlife, as in the case of the road through the Kutch sanctuary. At its 34th meeting on June 2, 2015, SC-NBWL approved of the widening of national highway-17 through Maharashtra's Karnala Bird Sanctuary, ostensibly to smoothen traffic, reduce emissions from recurring traffic jams and thus benefit wildlife. The proposal had been unanimously rejected at the 17th and 29th meetings as alternative routes were available.
"This is illustrative of the dilution and subversion of 'independent' institutions mandated to safeguard wildlife interests: state and national boards, and even the CEC," Dutta said.
'NBWL approved 400+ projects'
The environment ministry lists its high rate of approving projects among its 'achievements'. A document uploaded on the website of the Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change lists as its "initiatives and efforts" more than 400 projects approved by the NBWL between 2014 and 2017.
When questioned about the damage that such a high approval rate could cause to wildlife, Soumitra Dasgupta, inspector-general of forests for wildlife, told IndiaSpend that the SC-NBWL "cleared the proposals in its wisdom". Repeated emails to the three non-official members of the committee--H.S. Singh, director, Gujarat Ecological Education and Research Foundation, and R. Sukumar, professor at the Indian Institute of Science and well known for his work on the ecology of the Asian elephant, elicited no response. Sukumar promised to comment but did not, even 10 days on.
"The committee prescribes measures to mitigate the damage of projects," one NBWL member said, requesting anonymity, simultaneously admitting that "not everything can be solved by mitigation. For example, how would you mitigate the loss of Panna when it is to be submerged?"
Besides, there are no mechanisms to monitor if mitigation measures have been implemented, and how. Dasgupta admitted that monitoring compliance is a "weak link", while Jairam Ramesh, the environment minister under UPA-II, called it a "joke" in conversations with this writer.
The problem is not just about the number of approvals but the quality of assessment on which these are based. The SC-NBWL has a "lenient almost casual attitude that prioritises the convenience of the project proponents over the committee's mandate to assess proposals in conformity with the law, and for wildlife conservation", as per a report in the ERC Journal 2015. For example, at its 35th meeting, the SC-NBWL waived an earlier condition that restricted drilling operations for construction of a gas processing plant near Assam's Dehing Patkai Wildlife Sanctuary and part of the Dehing-Patkai Elephant Reserve. The drilling and construction would give wild animals no respite from constant disturbance.
A recent trend has been of asking for a site inspection after granting clearance--as was done in the case of a check dam in Kudremukh National Park in Karnataka, and the widening of National Highway-17 to four lanes in Karnala Sanctuary. The idea of a site visit is to take a considered decision after ascertaining facts on the ground. "A site visit post the decision is a facade, taking away the possibility of rejection if ground surveys indicate detrimental wildlife impacts," Dutta said.
"I am not aware of any such post-facto site visits," said Dasgupta.
This has led to accusations that the government has constituted a pliant board. Of the SC-NBWL's three 'independent' members, one is a serving forest officer--the director of the Gujarat Ecological Education and Research Foundation, an autonomous body set up by the government of Gujarat, a majority of whose members are serving ministers, government officers and retired forest officers, and which is chaired by the state's chief minister.
"The Standing Committee of NBWL does not have a strong representation of conservation NGOs," said Asad Rahamni, former director of India's oldest conservation NGO, the Bombay Natural History Society, and former member NBWL, "Hand-picked people represent the Standing Committee."
The allegations get support from the fact that the NBWL and its Standing Committee were not reconstituted after their three-year term got over in July 2017. Ever since a notification was issued in December 2014, the term of the members can be extended till such a period as their successor is nominated by the environment minister, who is the chairperson of SC-NBWL.
'Legal and statutorily approved destruction of wildlife'
Although the SC-NBWL's transformation into a 'clearance body' was evident even during the UPA era (2004-14), wildlife activists and experts allege, its conservation agenda is now completely subverted. "The approval process is a mere formality. The pre-occupation is to ease, fast-track clearances. There are no discussions, debates on the projects--the outcome is pre-decided in favour of the projects, which must be cleared somehow," said a former wildlife official who did not want to go on record.
The functioning of the committee also lays hollow the NDA government's claim of transparency in its workings. The agenda of the SC-NBWL, is no longer put online as was done earlier, so that stakeholders such as conservationists, researchers and local people remain in the dark.
( By Prerna Bindra, IndiaSpend)