Is a state government notification an indication that Gujarat, once considered to be committed to wildlife protection, has now moved industry to the top of its priority list?
RECENT press reports have cast aspersions on the Gujarat government's commitment to wildlife and biodiversity conservation. A notification issued by the state department of forests and environment on July 27, cancelled a 1981 notification, under which specified areas of Lakhpat taluka in Kutch were designated as the Narayan Sarovar sanctuary. The notification attempts to justify its abrupt decision with the comment that the area is "substantially in excess of the requirements of a sanctuary". It then goes on to declare a segment of the reserve forest area of the sanctuary as the Chinkara wildlife sanctuary.
The notification is ultra vires in view of Article 3, Section 26 A, of the 1991 Amendment to the Wildlife Act, 1972. This states that "no alteration of the boundaries of a sanctuary shall be made except on a resolution passed by the legislature of the state".
While a public interest litigation challenging the validity of the notification is pending in the Gujarat high court, the future of all sanctuaries and protected areas is a cause for concern. The state's 15 sanctuaries and four national parks cover an area of 20,191 sq km, which is approximately 10.3 per cent of its total area. They protect such diverse ecosystems as deserts, arid lands, hill tracts, moist deciduous teak forests, mangroves and coastal areas. The sanctuaries are the last refuge of the tiger and the Asiatic lion. Gujarat also boasts of being home to more than a third of the total variety of birds found in the Indian subcontinent.
The denotification of the Narayan Sarovar sanctuary is the first move of its kind in the state -- once considered to be committed to wildlife protection -- and may mark a new thrust in state policy, under which protection for sanctuaries would be rolled back in order to make more land available for mining and industrialisation.
A study of the legalities involved in the Narayan Sarovar case reveals the advantages inherent in the trade-off being made between conservation and industrialisation. In the event of denotification, land formerly under the sanctuary will revert to its earlier status. Sanctuaries normally contain reserved land that is protected by the Indian Forest Act of 1980 and require Central government approval for dereservation. The denotification thus releases large areas, which will become available for other activities that are not conducive to environmental protection.
The non-forest lands that generally form a substantial part of a sanctuary are the main attraction for state governments on the lookout for large contiguous areas that would suit the requirements of big industrial concerns. So, cement manufacturers intending to establish units in the Narayan Sarovar sanctuary will now be able to access the limestone reserves in the area.
As for the marine parks, their proximity to the developed port facilities at Sikka would be of considerable help to refineries, which are dependent on bulk handling facilities for oil transportation.
However, limestone mining will result in denudation of indigenous vegetation and soil erosion. The establishment of cement factories will cause substantial air pollution and hinder growth of vegetation.
The move to locate a petroleum refinery in or around the sanctuary area will have a drastic impact on the marine ecosystem. The processes involved in refining such as desaltation and fractionation of crude oil, thermal cracking, catalytic cracking and polymerisation will generate vast amounts of wastes, which will pollute the marine environment regardless of where the plant is located. Refineries are notorious for leakages and accidental spillage of crude oil, which create difficult-to-control oil slicks.
The denotification of the Narayan Sarovar sanctuary, which is home to six endangered species -- the chinkara, the desert cat, the pangolin, the peafowl, the caracal and the great Indian bustard -- may set a dangerous precedent in the present circumstances, with industrialisation and privatisation clearly winning the battle against conservation of flora and fauna.
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