COVID-19 Pandemic: Stop All Environmental Clearances

by GoNews Desk 2 weeks ago Views 759
National Board for Wildlife
In a letter to the Union Environment Minister Prakash Javadekar around 300 conservation scientists and wildlife experts, including 12 former members of the Standing Committee of the National Board for Wildlife (NBWL), the highest advisory body on wildlife chaired by the Prime Minister, have expressed serious concerns on the lack of due diligence for environmental and forest clearances, especially during the pandemic-related restrictions and hardships.

The letter specifically referenced the decisions and clearances given at the 57th  meeting of the Standing Committee of the National Board for Wild Life (NBWL) on the 7th of April 2020 that were related to the 31 proposals affecting 15 tiger reserves, sanctuaries, notified Eco-sensitive zones, deemed Eco-sensitive zones and designated wildlife corridors.

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The Ministry of Environment, Forest & Climate Change (MoEF&CC) has adapted to the current travel and physical distancing restrictions with a move to online platforms, such as video-conferences, for decision making. However, such communication platforms, used in its present form, are inadequate and do not pay due diligence to forest and environmental clearances according to the conservationist group.

“The MoEF&CC is under Orders of the Supreme Court to strictly comply with the Lafarge Judgment Guidelines to tighten the clearance process. Shockingly, key Guidelines are being ignored including the failure to appoint a National Regulator for appraising projects. The MoEF&CC appears to be abdicating its constitutional obligation of ensuring environmental protection. Granting fast-track clearances has now become the rule,” said Praveen Bhargav, legal expert and a former member of the NBWL.

The authors presented several concerns with regards to the project evaluations not being done rigorously to the method of functioning by statutory bodies. They state that video calls were not an efficient mode of communication to assess the environmental, livelihood and biodiversity impacts of projects. Signatories pointed out that under normal circumstances, Expert Appraisal Committee (EAC) meetings would last an entire day. In comparison, meetings during the recent lockdown have lasted only 2 hours, with only 10 minutes to appraise each project.

Due to the reliance on only digital documents uploaded by project developers on the Parivesh single window clearance portal leads to “fait accompli situations”, and gravely compromises the appraisals by the committees during the lockdown. The signatories stated that appraisals and assessments for clearance are being reduced to an “empty formality” lacking the credibility and rigour of its purpose.

Pioneering voices in India’s conservation efforts, such as M.K. Ranjitsinh, former Secretary of MoEF&CC who was part of multiple NBWL and other committees, along with many professionals from within the country and overseas are aghast at the workings of MoEF&CC in the midst of a pandemic. “I thought this pandemic will teach us a lesson that playing with nature can result in catastrophic consequences to humankind but sadly the MoEF&CC has used this lockdown opportunity to bulldoze major forest and environmental clearances,” said Asad Rahmani, former Director of the Bombay Natural History Society.

“It is inexcusable that our government continues to pursue a development model which depends on destroying nature, especially when there is suficient evidence of more sustainable options that will also generate significant employment and an equitable and inclusive economic future for us citizens,” said Ravi Chellam, wildlife biologist and CEO of Metastring Foundation.

Given the current circumstances and uncertain future, the signatories called for fresh appraisals and to hold in abeyance forest and environmental clearance decisions and postpone further meetings till all pandemic-related travel and meeting restrictions are completely lifted across India. They concluded their submission by urging the MoEF&CC to carry out its intended mandate of protection of India’s forests, wildlife and natural heritage and not fast-track the clearance of projects.

Academics from India’s premier institutions such as the Indian Institute of Science, National Centre for Biological Sciences, Wildlife Institute of India, Indian Institute of Science Education and Research, Indian Institute of Technology were signatories.

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