Forest ministry favours intrusion

The biggest threat protected areas across the country face right now is from their purported protector -- the Union ministry of environment and forests. It has moved more than 15 proposals before the standing committee of the National Wildlife Board to denotify portions of national parks and sanctuaries for purposes as disparate as building an ashram and regularising an illegally constructed golf course

By Nitin Sethi
Published: Thursday 15 January 2004

Former Union minister for environment and forests T R Baalu -- he put in his papers recently when his party decided to extend only issue-based support to the ruling coalition -- tried to shove a predetermined agenda down nwb's throat during its very first meeting. The few non-official members protested, and the Supreme Court (sc) took note of the irregularities in the board's constitution.

While moef is yet to reply to the sc notice asking for the antecedents of the board's members, it has formed a standing committee of the nwb to get its proposals ratified. Under the Wildlife Protection Amendment Act, 2003, this panel is the highest statutory authority to approve modifications to protected areas before the minister seals their fate.

If the standing committee gives its clearance, the Askot Musk Deer Wildlife Sanctuary in Uttaranchal will be smaller by about 30,000 hectares (ha) and the Govind National Park and Sanctuary -- located in the same state -- will lose more than 13,023 ha (see map: In a spot). In the latter case, moef has not even bothered to cite a reason for the denotification. This is not the only perplexing case. The ministry has resurrected the proposal for constructing a dam in Orissa's Sunabeda Sanctuary despite the standing committee of the erstwhile Indian Wildlife Board rejecting it in 2002.

Another contentious matter that is before the nwb standing committee pertains to the Salim Ali City Forest National Park in Srinagar, Jammu and Kashmir. The park, which also forms part of the catchment of Dal lake, has already been encroached upon to build a golf course, the residences of the chief minister and director general of police, and a corporate tourism centre. The inspection report of a team from the earlier standing committee had recommended that the golf course be legitimised. At the same time, it suggested that the other buildings should be taken over by the forest department.

Some ministry officials as well as a couple of members of the standing committee have expressed grave concern about the haste and high-handedness being displayed by moef. It may be noted that the committee was originally scheduled to meet on December 8, but the meeting was postponed when panel members complained about the inadequate notice period.

The members were simply handed one-page leaflets on almost all the areas in question, allege ministry sources. Experts feel that each case should be looked at separately on its merits. A standing committee member, wishing to remain anonymous, wonders: "How can I make an informed decision when the ministry is reluctant to part with relevant data?" Both the additional director general and the deputy inspector general of forests in moef remained inaccessible to Down To Earth.

Some critics observe in a lighter vein that the body should be referred to as the standing committee on denotification. "Under the law it is empowered to facilitate conservation. Instead, it is being used to justify moves that appear blatantly anti-conservationist," laments a senior ministry official. Will the moef be able to bulldoze its plans through the committee? Watch this space.

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