It was not the best of analogies. But it conveyed the helplessness of a section of the forest bureaucracy in the face of the minister’s brazen assurance. “Imagine asking Ravana to draw the Lakshman rekha. He would have right away kept Sita at grabbing distance,” rued an official at Paryavaran Bhavan, the seat of the Ministry of Environment and Forests (MoEF) in New Delhi.
On 10 December 2013, hearing a writ petition against the Tashiding hydel project, the Sikkim High Court directed the MoEF to issue notifications demarcating eco-sensitive zones (ESZ) within two months in the state where a string of mega hydel projects are coming up close to wildlife parks and sanctuaries.
Under the Environmental Protection Act, 1986, an ESZ is a protective ring around a national park or sanctuary to safeguard the forests and wildlife from activities such as mining, dams and heavy, polluting industries.
In 2006, the Supreme Court had ruled in favour of 10-km-wide ESZs — unless the Centre and the state notified a different boundary based on scientific site-specific assessment — adding that any project within that periphery would require mandatory prior clearance from the standing committee of the National Board for Wildlife (NBWL).
On 2 February this year, the MoEF under Veerappa Moily complied with the high court order. But making full use of the window of site-specific (forget the ‘scientific’ bit) discretion allowed by the apex court, it brought down the width of Sikkim’s ESZs from 10 km to 25-200 metres, freeing the contentious hydel projects from the NBWL’s scrutiny.
Each of the five notifications for Kyongnosla, Pangolakha, Singba Rhododendron and Fambonglho wildlife sanctuaries and the Khangchendzonga national park states that “setting up of new hydro-electric power plants (dams, tunneling, and construction of reservoir) and expansion of existing plants in the ESZ is prohibited” (except micro and mini projects to serve the energy needs of the local communities subject to consent from the gram sabha and other clearances).
But the ESZs themselves present an atrocious picture (see maps). For the Khangchendzonga national park and Kyongnosla sanctuary, it varies from 25-200 metres. For Pangolakha and Singba Rhododendron sanctuaries, the ESZ width is 25-50 metres. At Fambonglho, it is just 25 metres all around the sanctuary.
The IFS officer was livid: “Such (25-200 metres) distances mean absolutely nothing in ecological terms. Why not fix the Lakshman rekha (ESZ boundary) at zero metre and spare everyone the joke?”
Why has the MoEF under Moily resorted to such flagrant mockery of the law? Last year, the NBWL recommended a thorough probe into widespread violation of the SC order in Sikkim, where a number of ongoing projects within 10 km of a national park or sanctuary did not even seek the mandatory wildlife clearance.
In May 2013, the NBWL sent a team to inspect the 520 MW Teesta IV project that had sought wildlife clearance. In its report to the MoEF in August, the team drew a parallel between some hydel projects of Sikkim and iron ore mines of Goa and quoted the Justice MB Shah Commission report to underline how “approvals have been granted… in the eco-sensitive zones without placing the project proposals before the NBWL”.
During its visit, the team found that two hydel projects — the 1,200 MW Teesta III near Khangchendzonga National Park and 96 MW Dik Chu next to Fambonglho wildlife sanctuary — were well under construction without seeking clearance from the NBWL.
In its report, the team concluded that “with the notable exception of the Teesta IV project, none of the other projects… appear to have sought/obtained this compulsory SC-NBWL clearance”. The state government and the project proponents probably decided to sidestep the NBWL after it refused clearance to the Lethang hydel project in October 2010.
After the devastating earthquake in 2011, the Sikkim government turned the rejection into a PR opportunity by claiming that it scrapped Lethang and five other projects due to seismic concerns.
It was beyond the scope of the NBWL team’s specific inspection mandate to ascertain the proximity of other proposed and ongoing hydel projects to sanctuaries and national parks. So, it asked the MoEF to probe the widespread violation of the SC order, suspend work on the illegal projects, and punish the guilty.
The MoEF, then headed by Jayanthi Natarajan, took more than a month to make the report public and sat on its recommendations. It was nudged into action last December when a division bench of the Sikkim HC comprising acting Chief Justice NK Jain and Justice SP Wangdi warned the ministry of contempt proceedings for delaying the ESZ notifications for almost a year and set a deadline.
Forced to deliver, the ministry under Moily decided to follow the letter of the law and kill its spirit.
To be fair, Sikkim cannot afford to have 10-km ESZs all over the state. On paper, 47.34 percent of the state is forested. Sikkim’s one national park and seven wildlife sanctuaries span 2,183 sq km or nearly 31 percent of the state. It is the only state to have increased its forest cover — even if much of the addition is monoculture plantations — in the past two decades and targets another 1,000 hectare during the 12th Plan period.
A standard 10-km protective ring for all eight ESZs would leave virtually no room in the state for heavy infrastructure development. For example, conservationists have pointed out in the past fortnight how the ESZ of the Kangchenjunga national park (KNP) fell far short of the larger Khangchendzonga Biosphere Reserve (KBR) established in 2000. With 1,784 sq km of KPR as its core, the KBR has an additional area of 826 sq km. If the KBR boundary is followed for the KNP’s ESZ, this single stretch of protected zone would account for nearly 37 percent of the state.
“We cannot make unrealistic demands of the states that have achieved or maintained high forest cover,” says wildlife biologist MD Madhusudan, who was a member of the NBWL inspection team. “We cannot have standard 10-km ESZs across the country. But then, a range of 25-200 metre is simply ridiculous. It shows that the state and the Centre want to defeat the very purpose of having ESZs.”
Ultimately, it is for the people of Sikkim to decide the quantum of development in their hilly quake-prone state. The NBWL report, on its part, expressed deep concern about such large-scale manipulation of mountain river systems against “all reasonable scientific advice”.
“ We are not against development. But development should not be at the cost of our survival,” says Tseten Tashi Bhutia, convener of the Sikkim Bhutia-Lepcha Apex Committee, which moved the court after the Tashiding project obtained environmental clearance in 2010.
With a liberalised power policy and the opening up of this sector to private developers, the website of the Sikkim Energy and Power department claims the state “is poised to gain in a big way”. But the hydel scam (Sikkim’s Hydel Sell-off, Volume 10, Issue 42) orchestrated by a nexus of politicians, bureaucrats and promoters can cost Sikkim more than Rs 50,000 crore, and undermine its very identity.
“We sacrificed our sovereignty for India’s national security, not to become refugees in our own land. Why should we accept these notifications that will allow private power developers to loot our economy, destroy our sacred heritage and ecology, and unleash landslides, floods and tremors on us?” asks Bhutia.
After the mandatory 60-day period during which affected or interested parties can make objections to these draft notifications, the government can either review or enforce the ESZs as proposed. By then, it will be time for the polls. Sikkim will have its say in both Lok Sabha and Assembly elections.
Mazoomdaar is an independent journalist