Maharashtra’s green signal for the environment

Print edition : September 11, 2020

Two sub-adult male tigers at the Tadoba Andhari Tiger Reserve in Maharashtra. Photo: Photo: K.R. Deepak

The State Board for Wildlife undertook several significant and positive decisions in its latest meeting that promise far-reaching benefits for ecology and wildlife in Maharashtra.

The Maharashtra State Board for Wildlife (SBWL) met via videoconferencing on August 7, after almost two years. There were 12 items on the agenda and some crucial decisions were taken. For wildlife enthusiasts, the “green thinking” of Chief Minister Uddhav Thackeray and Minister of Environment and Tourism Aaditya Thackeray comes as a great relief because environmental issues have always been seen as impediments to progress by politicians.

The SBWL is chaired by the Chief Minister and the vice chairman is Sanjay Rathore, Cabinet Minister who holds the forest portfolio. Nitin Kakodkar, Principal Chief Conservator of Forests (Wildlife), is the member secretary. The other government appointees are Aaditya Thackeray; Dattatraya Bharane, Minister of State (Forests); and Dhiraj Deshmukh, a member of the Maharashtra Legislative Assembly. The SBWL has 29 members. It is responsible for policy decisions for the State’s 49 wildlife sanctuaries, five national parks and protected forests. It has the powers to implement the Wildlife Protection Act, 1972, and is the final body for deciding clearances for development projects that affect protected areas.

At this 18th meeting of the SBWL, the most crucial item on the agenda was point 11: “Controlling the population of tigers in Chandrapur district of Maharashtra & proposed management interventions to reduce human tiger Conflict.” This matter was listed because of human-animal conflict in the area. Kishor Rithe, who established the Satpuda Foundation and is a member of the SBWL, says that since 2007 there have been 150 tiger-related deaths of people. To resolve this, Kakodkar had proposed a plan that involved performing a laparoscopic vasectomy on male tigers, and relocating 50 of Chandrapur’s tigers. This so-called solution from an official who is an appointed guardian of wildlife stunned conservationists, who pointed out that the tiger is listed as Endangered on the Red List of the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN).

While sterilising an endangered species is one way of pushing it closer to extinction, translocation is stressful for the animals who are moved, as well as for the animals in the new location. There are territorial fights and human aggression to consider in the new location, both of which could result in the tigers facing real threats to their lives.

Rithe said, “We agree that some conservation strategy is required but not sterilisation and relocation. There are several dimensions to the problem. We must understand one thing. The forests of Chandrapur and Gadchiroli [adjoining district] are the same. But the Gadchiroli forests, barring one small section, have no tigers. Why is there no tiger movement from Chandrapur to Gadchiroli? Is there fragmentation of the wildlife corridor due to development projects? Is there poaching? I put these points across as solid arguments during the meeting.”

The Chief Minister apparently listened intently to all arguments and said that an expert committee would be formed to look into why the tigers were not moving into the Gadchiroli forests. Thus, the SBWL dismissed the sterilisation and translocation plans in favour of working out a more practical alternative such as a safe wildlife corridor between Chandrapur and Gadchiroli.

Chandrapur district, where the Tadoba Andhari Tiger Reserve is located, is home to 165 tigers, not including cubs and young adults. Since the all-Maharashtra count of tigers is 312, Chandrapur has more than half of the State’s tigers. About 15 years ago, the population of tigers in Maharashtra was a dismal 105. A relentless programme of habitat conservation and protection has resulted in a threefold increase in the tiger population. The organisations responsible for this are the Satpuda Foundation, Wildlife Conservation Trust, Wildlife Trust of India, Tiger Research and Conservation Trust, Eco-Pro, Bombay Natural History Society, World Wildlife Fund, and Nature Conservation Society, Amravati.

Point 12 on the agenda had been hanging fire for long. The “Proposal for Gauge Conversion from Metre Gauge to Broad Gauge between Akola Khandwa [Melghat Tiger Reserve]” involves an old meter gauge line that runs through the Melghat Tiger Reserve. Upgrading it to broad gauge would spell disaster for the wildlife in that area. Rithe, who has worked in these forests for more than 30 years, explained, “The railway is a very convenient vehicle to transport illegally picked herbs like melli and ashwagandha, deer antlers, wood chips to Khandwa. On the way through Melghat, the slow meter gauge was easily stopped by these forest smugglers by pulling a chain to load this contraband.”

The issue has always had a political colour to it, with the Member of Parliament for Akola seeing the gauge upgradation as a feather in his cap. The first proposal for conversion was made in 2009. After that, there have been numerous meetings and committees and even a railway survey that recommended finding an alternative route but there was political resistance to the idea.

Using all this information, the current government once again reviewed the proposal. Rithe said, “This time Chief Minister Uddhav Thackeray hit a six. He wrote a separate letter to Railway Minister Piyush Goyal as well as Forest and Environment Minister Shri Prakash Javadekar opposing the extension of the route from the core area of ​​the Tiger Project...At the meeting of the State Wildlife Board we unanimously passed a resolution that this railway extension should not take place through the core area of ​​the Melghat Tiger Reserve.”

The SBWL also decided to set up an exclusive Wildlife Conservation Fund to provide financial grants to conservation projects across the State. The funding would come from a cess that development projects already pay for whatever environmental damage they are likely to cause. Earlier, the project developers would have to carry out some environmental mitigation scheme but with the new decision they will just pay the Fund.

Interestingly, this was the first time that more emphasis was given to the coastal ecosystem by the SBWL. A proposal was passed to notify Angria Bank on the western coast as a “designated area” for marine protection under the Territorial Waters, Continental Shelf, Exclusive Economic Zone and other Maritime Zones Act, 1976. A proposal for the recovery programme for the Arabian sea humpback whales in Indian waters, Maharashtra State, was also passed.

Other minor but significant decisions taken by the SBWL will have far-reaching effects. It decided that when optical fibres are laid across forest land, horizontal directional drilling machines be used instead of earth movers to minimise disruption to the landscape. Similarly, transmission lines will be laid as underground cables instead of towers that take up large tracts of forest land. These were, in fact, decisions that were taken in the previous meeting in December 2018 but had been omitted in the minutes and hence came up again.

State mangrove tree

The SBWL also declared the Sonneratia alba, one of the 20 types of mangroves found in India, a new official State tree. While its new status brings the plant no extra security benefits, the State has raised awareness of the might of mangroves in safeguarding the coast by giving the Sonneratia alba an official status.

Point 6 on the agenda, “Permission for collection of specimens from Protected areas for research as per Section 29 & 35(6) of the Wildlife Protection Act 1972”, was interesting because it brought out the fact that the Chief Minister’s youngest son, Tejas, is a herpetologist researcher and a keen wildlife enthusiast. The routine research request was granted to the team that Tejas is working with.

Those who attended the meeting were heartened by the Chief Minister’s preparedness as well as the fact that he listened without any interruption and made his points only towards the end. For instance, one of the points on the agenda was the notification of the Kanhargaon sanctuary in Chandrapur district. Despite obtaining all clearances, there was a continuing attempt to stall this project since this area is now being commercially exploited by the Forest Development Corporation of Maharashtra (FDCM). The FDCM would obviously stand to lose if a sanctuary was created and so kept pushing the idea that public opinion should be consulted. The sanctuary already has a clearance in principle and only its notification was pending. Besides the Wildlife Protection Act, 1972, does not mandate sanction from local people. After hearing both sides of the argument, Thackeray discussed the issue and closed the matter in favour of the sanctuary by asking: “Have you ever asked wildlife what it would like?”

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