Conservationists, others questions hurried environmental and forest clearances during pandemic

ITANAGAR, May 13: A group of 291 conservation scientists and allied professionals, including several Arunachalee conservationists, students and researchers, along with 12 former members of the Standing Committee of the National Board for Wildlife (NBWL), the highest advisory body on wildlife that is chaired by the prime minister of India, have expressed their serious concerns about the lack of due diligence for environmental and forest clearances, especially during the pandemic-related restrictions and hardships.
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. The letter stated that such communication platforms, used in its present form, are inadequate and do not pay due diligence to forest and environmental clearances.
“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 from Wildlife First and a former member of the NBWL.
Specifically, the letter referred to the decisions and clearances given at the 57th meeting of the standing committee of the NBWL on 7th 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. This also included the virtual Forest Advisory Committee (FAC) meeting for the Etalin hydro-electric project.
“How ironic is the state of our nation. The MoEF&CC, FAC and NBWL are the highest authorities in our country that are suppose to accord for the protection of our wildlife and forests. But they are on a spree to clear forests instead of protecting them. Rivers and forests are the lifeline of Arunachal. Our state is one of few states, which is still recognized for its green forest cover, rich culture and rich biodiversity. Arunachal needs more protection than clearance,” said Rimung Tasso, a researcher and project officer working with the WWF in the Western Arunachal Landscape, who was one the several Arunachalees that had signed this letter.
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 two 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. Crucial safeguards and guidelines, such as site visits, public hearings, inputs from relevant experts and people on the ground are also difficult to implement, with travel and other restrictions.
“The Government of India, MoEF&CC has taken the covid-19 lockdown as an opportunity to clear projects, including in Arunachal Pradesh. Plus this is happening at a time when we are unravelling links between diseases like Covid-19 and the destruction of our natural world. The covid pandemic has brought us to our knees and is linked to the destruction of our natural world, yet there seem to be no lessons learnt,” stated Jorjo Tana, one of the signatories fighting illegal logging in Arunachal Pradesh.
The letter was signed by a group of conservation scientists and allied professionals, including pioneering voices such as Dr MK Ranjitsinh, former secretary of the MoEF&CC, who was part of multiple NBWL and other committees, along with many professionals from within the country and overseas.
They stated that it was ironic they were raising their concerns 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 Dr Asad Rahmani, former director of the Bombay Natural History Society, who had submitted a site-inspection report on the impacts of Demwe Lower Hydro Electric Project, in the past.
The list of signatories also included emerging conservation professionals, former members of the FAC and environmental photojournalists and film-makers that have taken Arunachal’s wildlife and forest stories to regional, national and international audiences.
“How much more proof do we need? The consequences of ignoring nature’s warnings could lead to even more serious repercussions for humankind in these times. Mindless ‘progress’ is pushing our planet towards extinction. The Covid-19 pandemic is one example of the consequences of the continued neglect abuse and destruction of natural habitats, ecosystems and landscapes, we need to be even more rigorous in evaluating decisions when forests and wildlife clearance proposals are put up,” said noted environmentalist and film-maker Mike Pandey and three time Green Oscar winner who is working on finalising a film on Eaglenest Wildlife Sanctuary and Pakke Tiger Reserve.
The voices of seasoned wildlife experts such as Dr AJT Johnshingh and Dr Divyabhanusinh Chavda were joined by researchers and professionals from Assam, Nagaland, Arunachal Pradesh and many states from across the country.
Students from NERIST, Nagaland University, 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. The letter was also signed by Indian academics from Columbia University, Yale University, University of Michigan, and University of Cambridge, among others. 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.
“As Arunachalees why are we failing to analyze the cost we have to pay in terms of habitat loss, destruction of flora and fauna that we can never recover just for electricity that will go to other parts of India? We all want development, but why aren’t we doing enough to think about all costs? Mitigation of natural hazards has not been accounted for by these mega-hydel projects. If we are talking about development, it should come with preparedness. When the world is campaigning towards cleaner, greener and more sustainable development, why are we hell bent on destroying our pristine forests of Arunachal Pradesh”, said Onam Perme one of the signatories and coordinator of Fridays for Future, Arunachal Pradesh.
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 to fast-track the clearance of projects.