Wildlife conservation in India has a long history, dating back to the colonial period when it was rather very restrictive to only targeted species and that too in a defined geographical area. Then, the formation of the Wildlife Board at the national level and enactment of Wildlife Act in 1972 laid the foundation of present day “wildlife conservation” era in post-independent India. Henceforth, the Act has been amended several times and the National Wildlife Advisory Board has undergone various changes.
Project Tiger in the 1970s and the Project Elephant in 1992–both with flagship species–attracted global attention. India then also became a member of all major international conservation treaties related to habitat, species and environment (like Ramsar Convention, 1971; Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora, 1973; Convention on Migratory Species, 1979; Convention on Biological Diversity, 1992, among others). Today, a chain of 41 tiger reserves and 28 elephant reserves, besides a network of 668 Protected Areas, bear testimony to the efforts of Centre. The Environmental Protection Act, 1986, and notifications issued thereunder made serious efforts to protect wildlife habitats and wildlife corridors.
With the opening up of Indian market and process of globalisation, the country has made significant progress in achieving higher Gross Domestic Product (GDP). But, on the other hand, disturbing developments about dilution of conservation efforts on the part of the system of governance on one side and a significant increase in the death toll of protected species, combined with intervention within Protected Areas came to fore. Take for instance, the restrictions by Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) for Development Projects, covering more than 30 sectors as far back in 1994, surprisingly omitting all railway projects from its ambit. The history of last 20 years bears testimony to the sad fact, in attempts of the so called “development lobby” to establish practices like “green blockade”. EIA notification, for instance, puts special restriction for development projects in and around “Protected Areas”- largely on the basis of requirement of ‘Forest Clearance’ or on the assessment of impacts on Wildlife Habitat or on well found apprehension of fragmentation of wildlife habitat or corridors.
It will be worthwhile to mention that in the 31st meeting of the Standing Committee for National Board for Wildlife (NBWL), held between August 12-13,, 2014, as many as 173 projects were listed for clearance from 24 states of India. A total of 130 projects were cleared, but were eventually struck down by the Supreme Court of India on the grounds that the current constitution of NBWL is a violation of law (PA Update, 2014-15: 12-22). Again, in a single NBWL meeting, held on January 21, 2015, at least 34 project proposals, cutting across 12 states have been approved; including those for road, rail, oil drilling, pipeline, canal construction–all being within the declared boundary of 27 wildlife sanctuaries, four national parks, one tiger reserves and two bird sanctuaries, among others. All these projects involve diversion of forest land within ‘Protected Area’ for non-forestry purpose (PA Update, 2015. 21(2): 21-23).
Besides, at least 15 proposals from 10 states got clearance for diversion of forest land within 10 km radius of national parks and wildlife sanctuaries, which according to EIA norm should not have been given permission. The range of projects included construction of jetty in water ways and highway on land, storage facilities, irrigation, canal construction, road, mining, thermal power, hydrocarbon exploration.
The gamut of development projects being cleared may be indicative of country’s rapid growth, but it also poses a question—what is the future of wildlife in India? Thanks to illegal poaching, Sariskaand Panna tiger reserves in Rajasthan and Madhya Pradesh respectively were recently declared “tiger-less”. Buxa Tiger Reserve in West Bengal also has no tiger now.A recent news on death of “lions” in large number in Gujarat attracted national media attention. Also the illegal poaching or human-induced deaths as witnessed in Manas Wildlife Sanctuary, causing decline in rhino population. But on the other hand, deliberate and predicted deaths of Indian Elephants on railway tracks in north Bengal. Stories of these deaths that were five times more since the railway line was broadened also attracted eyeballs. Has any action been taken to prevent such colossal loss of wildlife—legally or illegally? Very recently, Government of India had again cleared another railway project connecting North Bengal to Sikkim via Rongpo, diverting 86 ha of forests land. These wildlife species are all listed under Schedule I of Indian Wildlife Protection Act and should have been given highest protection status. Land is not the only place with wildlife crisis. Hundreds of dead sea turtles have recently been spotted on Odisha coast. It is alleged that uncontrolled trawling operation made the coast a cemetery for Olive Ridley turtles.
The 48 projects recommended for clearance in January 2015, if undertaken, will convert 2,144 ha of forest land within the Protected Area. But in some cases, forest area has not been clearly defined and maneuvered in such language as “afforestation of boundary of Protected Area for exclusion of part of limestone bearing mineral zone” in Kamur Wildlife Sanctuary, Bihar. The title at least does not indicate “what the limestone bearing area is” that is referred to within the sanctuary. In June 2015, NBWL had again cleared 18 new projects and deferred four projects without rejecting a single one. These include six projects within five tiger reserve areas (PA update, August, 2015). One can recall how years ago, dolomite mining was totally banned in Buxa Tiger Reserve, although mining history dates back 50 years before the tiger reserve was notified.
The forest cover in India has a target to reach 33 per cent of land area but forests within the Protected Areas have special significance in terms of biodiversity and wildlife conservation. Years back, a study by Zoological Survey of India on tiger reserves of India revealed how tiger reserves have contributed towards efforts of conservation of biological diversity in the country by protecting keystone species and forests. One has to remember that till date 70 per cent of biodiversity has been recorded from the forested area in the world.
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