Big promises, bigger silence

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An unusually productive meeting of the National Board for Wildlife has raised hope. But will the prime minister deliver?

Red signal Illegal quarrying inside the BRT Tiger Reserve in Karnataka
Red signal Illegal quarrying inside the BRT Tiger Reserve in Karnataka
Photo: L Venkatesh

IN HIS statement on coal block allocation last week, PM Manmohan Singh blamed “cumbersome processes involved in getting statutory clearances” for the private parties’ failure to achieve their production targets. This was in line with his other observations critical to environmental norms that have been apparently pulling down the growth rate.

So when the PM convened what is supposed to be the annual meeting of the National Board for Wildlife (NBWL) after 29 months on 5 September, a section of the green constituency expected “fireworks”. The PM’s increasingly public criticism of green roadblocks apart, the recent record of the ministry itself frustrated a number of NBWL members. Since it is not feasible for the 47-member NBWL to meet too frequently, a 10- member Standing Committee takes stock of proposals for diversion of forestland every three months. During these meetings lasting three hours or so, dozens of projects are cleared in an unusual hurry.

A couple of months before he left the green ministry, Jairam Ramesh considered 59 project proposals in a little over two hours in 2011, rejecting only four. On most occasions, opposition by NBWL members are brushed aside citing lack of time. Often minutes are tweaked to claim a consensus even after members submit written objections.

Anticipating the growing outrage, Environment Minister Jayanthi Natarajan took the lead on 5 September before members could launch an offensive. “Many of you feel that the NBWL has become a clearing house. But only 18 proposals have been cleared during my tenure,” she reportedly said, quickly forming a sub-committee to revamp the rules of proceedings. “There can be a provision for the minister to overrule objections by members after duly recording the same but the entire board cannot be made to look complacent,” said a member.

Fireworks were avoided again when the minister agreed to seek more funds from the Planning Commission to support wildlife areas other than tiger reserves. This fiscal year, Project Tiger was sanctioned Rs 167.70 crore, while the allocation for India’s 600-odd protected areas was just Rs 73.50 crore.

The Centre’s Rs 800 crore Integrated Development of Wildlife Habitat (IDWH) initiative earmarks only Rs 250 crore to look after the protection of all wildlife outside protected forests across the country. Natarajan also agreed to set up a Central body to monitor recovery strategies of 16 critically endangered species and enhance the present budget of Rs 100 crore under the IDWH.

The 11th Plan earmarked Rs 778 crore for the 40 tiger reserves. During the same period, Project Elephant got only Rs 82 crore. The minister accepted, in principle, the proposal for setting up a National Elephant Conservation Authority and assured the NBWL to bring key elephant corridors under the protected areas network in the forthcoming amendment of the Wildlife Protection Act.

Next up for discussion was the contentious issue of project proponents obtaining green clearances through a strategic fait accompli. It has become a routine to start work on a project after securing the environmental clearance and then citing the quantum of investment already made as a justification for demanding the wildlife clearance. Acknowledging the problem, Natarajan assured the NBWL that environmental clearance will henceforth be considered provisional till wildlife clearance is granted.

All these assurances, if delivered, will make for more stringent compliance to green laws and, therefore, can be viewed as additional roadblocks by those obsessed with growth. All this while, the PM maintained a stoic silence in the meeting. In fact, he barely spoke after delivering his brief chairman’s speech.

Given the PM’s public belligerence to “environmental licence raj”, it is difficult to imagine a sudden change of heart. Not surprising that a number of NBWL members have vowed to follow up on the decisions made and assurances offered right from the stage of preparation of the meeting’s minutes.

The coal scam unfolded under his watch and Manmohan Singh has since been accused of Qui tacet consentire. But when it comes to stricter green laws, prime ministerial silence may not necessarily imply consent.

Jay Mazoomdaar is an Independent Journalist.
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