Forest dept withdraws permission to PWD for EWIC road survey inside Pakke Tiger Reserve

Dept did not follow rules, RTI reveals

[Tongam Rina]

ITANAGAR, 5 Aug: Arunachal’s forest and environment department has withdrawn the permission it had given to the PWD highway on 7 April, 2021 “for survey and investigation within the Pakke Tiger Reserve (PTR) for preparation of detailed project report (DPR) of proposed East-West Industrial Corridor (EWIC) road.”

In a letter to the PWD, issued on 30 June, 2021, PCCF (WL and BD and CWLW) G Kumar while cancelling the permission said that, as per the provision of Section 38 V (4) (i) of the Wildlife Protection Act, 1972, core/critical tiger habitats of tiger reserves are to be kept inviolate for purposes of tiger conservation. The department cited the outcome of the standing committee meeting of the National Board for Wildlife during 12-13 August, 2014, when it was decided that no new roads shall be proposed inside national parks and sanctuaries. It also cited the letter from the ministry of road transport & highways issued on 29 May, 2019, which states that “all efforts shall be made to avoid any road alignment through national parks and wildlife sanctuaries, even if it requires taking a longer route/bypass.”

The highway department had written to the forest department on 8 March, seeking permission for surveying the Seijosa to Bhalukpong portion of Package 2 (b) of the East West Industrial Corridor (EWIC) road via Pakke, which is 39.84 kms long.

The 692.70-km EWIC road is proposed to connect the state’s foothill districts without passing through Assam.

The forest department had granted permission on 7 April this year to the highway superintending engineer “to carry out non-invasive survey in PTR and no damage to flora and fauna shall be caused under any circumstances during the survey and the entire process shall be carried out under the supervision of the PTR DFO.”

The department had granted permission based on an office memorandum of the union ministry of environment, forest & climate change’s (MoEFCC) wildlife division, dated 26 September, 2014.

The baffling office memorandum (see here), which seems to be in violation of various wildlife laws, reads “… it has been proposed that as the requirement of permission from MoEF&CC for carrying out preliminary survey for projects in wildlife sanctuaries/national parks is based on consideration of the task of survey as a non-forestry activity, there is scope of rethinking on this aspect and so it may be considered to authorize PCCF (WL)/CWLW to give permission for survey in protected areas with the condition that no cutting of trees is involved.”

Meanwhile, documents furnished by the state’s forest department in response to queries from this daily suggest that the department did not follow the mandatory due process while granting clearance for survey inside the park.

The state wildlife advisory board did not take up the survey for laying a road through the PTR in any of the sittings between 2018 to June 2021. The department was also unable to provide application ID from PARIVESH for the EWIC road in its response.

PARIVESH is the MoEFCC’s “web-based application, which has been developed for online submission and monitoring of the proposals submitted by the proponents for seeking environment, forest, wildlife and CRZ clearances from central, state and district level authorities.”

As reported earlier, the then DFO of the PTR, Tana Tapi, had refused to grant permission to the PWD. According to information obtained through an RTI application by environmental activist Tana Jorjo Tara, the PTR’s DFO had in a letter to the highway department’s chief engineer in July 2018 suggested that an alternative route be taken up instead laying one through the PTR, citing the FCA and the WPA, 1972.

The objection raised by the DFO had been noted in the DPR by the consultant, which was submitted to the state government last year.

The DPR had been prepared by Ahmedabad (Gujarat)-based consultancy firm Nektor Engineers & Project Consultants (NEPC), which had proposed an elevated corridor through the 40 km stretch from Seijosa to Bhalukpong, through the heart of the PTR.

The consultant had given three options for the road: via Pakke-Kessang, Seppa and Nechiphu; via Pakke-Kessang and Nechiphu; and through the PTR.

The forest department was not consulted by the NEPC before the finalization of the DPR, which was prepared using satellite imageries.

As controversy erupted and there were demands that Pakke be left alone, Chief Minister Pema Khandu had said in March 2020 that Pakke would be protected.

“The Pakke Tiger Reserve is not only home to the tigers but (is) also one of the biodiversity hotspots of the country and home to scores of endangered species,” he had said.

Khandu had said that he asked the PWD commissioner to review the road project and brief him, “so that early strategy can be worked out.”

However, a year later, in March this year, the chief minister said that the Arunachal government would take up construction of the EWIC road with the union government, and that the department is examining the elevated corridor proposal, but that the MoRTH would take a final call.

The road project, which was conceived in 1990 and would pass through East Siang, Lower Siang, Kamle, Papum Pare, East Kameng and West Kameng districts, offers no land compensation, which is possibly the reason why the state government and the forest department are keen on having the road through the tiger project.

The union government is likely to fund the project, but the state will have to do all the ground work, including obtaining forest clearance, acquiring land, carrying out a techno-economic feasibility study, and preparing the detailed project report.