Environmental Issues

Fresh innings for State Wildlife Board in Maharashtra

Print edition : August 14, 2020

Work going on at the Akola rail yard as part of the Akola-Khandwa narrow to broad gauge conversion project within the Melghat Tiger Reserve in Amravati, which is in the Vidarbha region of Maharashtra.

A joint inspection team of engineers from Telangana and forest officials from Maharashtra studying a map to determine how much of an impact the Pranahita barrage will have on forests and wildlife, in Adilabad, Telangana in 2016. The Pranahita Chevella lift irrigation scheme is one of the many projects that are awaiting final recommendations for wildlife mitigation measures from the Maharashtra SWLB. Photo: By Special Arrangement

Chief Minister Uddhav Thackeray. Photo: PTI

With the Chief Minister and State Environment Minister open to giving environmental issues a fair hearing, there is hope that the recently reconstituted SWBL, a regulatory body, will be able to fulfil its mandate of safeguarding wildlife and protected areas in the State.

After holding their breath for eight months, environmentalists and nature lovers all over Maharashtra now feel relieved because on July 7 Chief Minister Uddhav Thackeray reconstituted the State Board for Wildlife (SBWL) and approved the names of 29 members.

As Chief Minister, Thackeray holds the post of chairperson, and Sanjay Rathore, Cabinet Minister holding the forest portfolio, is the vice chairperson. Nitin Kakodkar, Principal Chief Conservator of Forests (Wildlife), is the member secretary. The other government appointees are Aaditya Thackeray, Minister of Environment and Tourism; Dattatraya Bharane, Minister of State (Forests); and Dhiraj Deshmukh, a member of the Maharashtra Legislative Assembly.

Environmentalists selected from across the State—Bittu Sahgal from Mumbai, Kishor Rithe from Amravati, Anuj Khare from Pune, Vishwas Katdare from Ratnagiri, Kundan Hate from Nagpur and Suhas Waingankar from Kolhapur—are its non-government members. Among others, representatives from the Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change, the Maharashtra Police, the Indian Army, the Zoological Survey of India, the Botanical Survey of India, the Bombay Natural History Society, the Wildlife Institute of India, the Wildlife Conservation Trust and the Commissioners of the State Fisheries and Animal Husbandry Departments are also on the SWLB.

SWLB mandates

The umbrella mandate of the SBWL, which is a regulatory body, is conservation and protection of wildlife in protected areas (PAs), which involves activities such as selecting areas that have to be declared as sanctuaries, appraising proposals that would affect PAs or the buffer zones around them, relocating big cats and recommending wildlife mitigation measures. The SWLB was formed under provisions of the Wildlife (Protection) Act (WPA), 1972, and is responsible for any policy decision that could affect any of the State’s 49 wildlife sanctuaries, national parks, protected forests and tiger reserves. Only after the SBWL recommends a proposal can it go to the next level, that is, to the Standing Committee of the National Board for Wildlife (NBWL).

The newly constituted SBWL enters an arena where the battle lines have already been drawn but where things have been in limbo for 20 months. The SBWL will first have to deal with several pending mega infrastructure projects. Its final recommendations on the wildlife mitigation measures to be taken are awaited for the Mumbai-Nagpur Samruddhi expressway; the 126-kilometre-long Virar-Alibaug multimodal corridor; the dedicated Delhi-Mumbai rail freight corridor; the Goregaon-Mulund tunnel, which will pass through the boundaries of the Sanjay Gandhi National Park and the Tungareshwar Wildlife Sanctuary; the Mumbai-Ahmedabad bullet train project; and for inter-State projects such as the Pranahita Chevella lift irrigation scheme and the Chanaka-Korata barrage between Maharashtra and Telangana.

Apart from looking at the environmental and wildlife aspects of projects, the SBWL is also the nodal authority for research projects within wildlife zones. These too have been stalled for many months now.

The first meeting of the reconstituted board is yet to be announced. It is expected that it will be via videoconferencing as the NBWL, its parent body, has been doing because of the COVID-19 crisis. In fact, the NBWL gave the final clearance for the controversial Rs.55,335 crore Mumbai-Nagpur Samruddhi expressway during a videoconference call on April 7. The NBWL gave the project a conditional clearance way back in 2018. The precondition to be fulfilled was that appropriate wildlife mitigation measures should be applied to ensure safe movement of wild animals as a total of 103.725 km of this 701-km-long expressway passes through tiger corridors and the eco-sensitive zones of the Katepurna Wildlife Sanctuary, the Karanja Sohol Blackbuck Sanctuary and the Tansa Wildlife Sanctuary. The wildlife mitigation measures are yet to be finalised, but despite this, work has been going on at the project site.. Working in an eco-sensitive zone is a violation of the WPA. There is little that the SBWL can do about the Samruddhi expressway, but sources within the board said that they would ensure that the wildlife mitigation measures were carried out.

The importance of wildlife mitigation measures, especially when it comes to animal underpasses in PAs, cannot be emphasised enough. On July 13, a tiger from the Pench Tiger Reserve jumped over an incomplete underpass and landed directly on the highway. The incident occurred at night, and a tragedy was averted only because Forest Department officials came to the spot to control the situation until the tiger made its way back into the forest. This underpass is being constructed to facilitate tiger movement between the Maharashtra and the Madhya Pradesh sides of the Pench Tiger Reserve and will be 1,400 metres long, the longest wildlife underpass in the world.

Mired in controversies

Despite the presence of some committed environmentalists, the SBWL has had its share of controversies in the past. One member, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said that the agenda was frequently sent at the last minute thereby preventing members from carrying out site visits and understanding the project. Government appointees also take a high-handed attitude and try and harry non-government members into clearing projects as a matter of routine. The member recalled one Minister known for pushing gigantic infrastructure projects addressing other members in a bullying tone asking them what the problem was in not clearing a road project that was going to significantly eat into a sanctuary. Fortunately, the members held their ground. Site visits and other procedures were followed as were the wildlife mitigation measures.

But in the past, projects have inexplicably been cleared even though they directly affected PAs, for example, the Kukadi left bank canal, which cut through the Great Indian Bustard Sanctuary in Ahmednagar-Solapur; the Tambdi irrigation project in the Phansad Wildlife Sanctuary in Roha-Raigad; and the Naradwe irrigation project in the Radhanagari Wildlife Sanctuary in Sindhudurg.

The present SBWL is considered a strong one, and so far, both the Chief Minister and Aaditya Thackeray have been inclined to give environmental issues a fair hearing.

Uddhav Thackeray stands up for wildlife

For example, in July, Uddhav Thackeray wrote letters to Prakash Javadekar, Union Minister for Environment, Forest and Climate Change (see letter below), and to Piyush Goyal, Union Minister for Railways, in connection with the 176 km Akola-Khandwa narrow to broad gauge conversion project within the Melghat Tiger Reserve in Amravati. The project, he said, would adversely affect wildlife and reverse whatever conservation work had already been implemented and therefore an alternative line should be found outside the reserve.

In the letter, he said: “Melghat is among the first nine tiger reserves declared in 1973-74. Home to 35 tigers, it is spread across an area of 2,768.52 sq. km and is a part of Satpura-Maikal landscape which has the distinction of being one of the global priority tiger conservation landscapes.”

What stands out in the letter is the hope that it brings. A railway line within a tiger preserve would literally be the detrimental to wildlife— an obvious point, that would not resonate with government normally. However, in this case the letter is an example of effective coordination between the authorities that are responsible for protecting the interests of wildlife. Thackeray traces this coordination in his letter by writing: “The Wildlife Institute of India had also recommended that the best mitigation for the railway line is ‘Avoidance’ of the upgradation through the tiger reserve and opt for alternative alignments. The proposal has also been considered by the Central Empowered Committee… and [it] has asked the National Board for Wildlife to reconsider its decision of 160.94 Ha of forest land for gauge conversion within the Wan Sanctuary of Melghat Tiger Reserve. The National Board for Wildlife has returned the proposal to the State Government with a request to review the proposal in the light of the recommendations of the NTCA [National Tiger Conservation Authority] and WII.” (That the NBWL cleared this in the first place is an example of how wildlife boards get co-opted by the government.)