A range too far

Environmentalists succeed in thwarting the Army's move to construct a firing range

Last Updated: Saturday 04 July 2015

the ministry of environment and forests ( mef ) has withdrawn the clearance it gave to the Army's proposed Field Firing Range ' g ' in North Sikkim which covers an area about 17,250 hectares (ha) of reserved forests. The mef had given the clearance in November 1995. In a letter dated December 5, 1997 -- that officially reached Gangtok in February, 1998 -- the mef has cancelled the Army's firing range near the Indo-China border which is considered to be Sikkim's richest biodiversity.

Environmentalists in Sikkim had been opposing the proposed project for a long time. The Green Circle, a Gangtok based environmentalists group, in the forefront of the protest against the project. "The project would have threatened the fragile Sikkim biodiversity causing long term environmental and ecological catastrophes," said Dinesh R Prodhan of Green Circle.

The area identified for the project -- the Lashar Valley which has altitudes ranging from 4,200 metres to 5,650 metres -- boasts of endangered flora such as Aconitum, Gentiana, Gnetum and rarest fauna such as the Red Fox, Tibetan Gazelle, Snow Partridges and Snow Finch. Most of these flora and faunas are listed under Schedule I of Wildlife (Protection) Act, 1972. The proposed area is also adjacent to the Rhododendran sanctuary at Singve in Yumthang Valley. It was alleged that the firing range would disturb the wildlife in the region and change the natural habitat.

The project was marred with controversy right from the beginning. To begin with, its initiation was kept a secret -- even the mef 's first clearance in 1995 to the project was not made public. In November 1996, the Green Circle was tipped of by its "sources" about the project and it came into public notice. "When we started protesting that the Union government was pressurising the state government to transfer 17,250 ha of reserved forest for this project, we were taken aback by the fact that the mef had also given the clearance", said a Green Circle activist who did not want to be identified. In reply to a question in Rajya Sabha on August 23, 1995, the then environment minister, Kamal Nath, replied that the mef did not receive any proposal for diversion of reserved forest lands to the Army. According to state forest officials, only after pressure from "higher administration", the forest department approached the mef in October and got the clearance in a record one month period.

In 1996, senior officials from mef and the Cabinet Secretariat attended a workshop on the state's tourism in Gangtok. The Green Circle made a presentation against the project and its impact on the region's biodiversity. During the course of the workshop the state leadership was warned of the fallout of the proposed project. The Green Circle also criticised the state and the Union government's whimsical way of promoting projects that result in destruction of forest and biodiversity. Another factor that influenced the state government and the mef 's stand on the project was that in 1996, the then chief secretary was issued a show-cause notice by the mef for violation of Forest Conservation Act, 1980. In this case too, environmental clearance was given to the Army to construct a road inside a reserved forest area. So when the firing range issue came up, environmentalists used this episode and forced both the sides to change their stand.

Although the "greens" are claiming victory, this is not the time to rejoice. If some Army and forest officials based in Gangtok are to be believed, the Army is planning to acquire the same land on lease citing "national security" reasons. And that could mean another round of battle.

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