Wildlife Institute’s biodiversity study for rail project in Western Ghats raises conflict of interest concerns

Terms of the assessment are set by RVNL, the project developer.

Published : Sep 20, 2023 17:12 IST - 5 MINS READ

A rail road passing through the Western Ghats in Karnataka.

A rail road passing through the Western Ghats in Karnataka. | Photo Credit: ANIL KUMAR SASTRY

In August 2017, the Indian Institute of Science (IISc) prepared a biodiversity and environment assessment report for a project proposed by Rail Vikas Nigam Ltd (RVNL) to double the railway track between Kulem in Goa and Castlerock in Karnataka. The project seeks to cut through the Bhagwan Mahavir Wildlife Sanctuary and Mollem National Park in the Western Ghats in Goa; and will also impact connectivity across the border with Kali Tiger Reserve in Karnataka.

The IISc report had faced serious backlash due to omissions and errors. In December 2020, the report was peer reviewed by a group of 31 scientists who found misidentification and under-reporting of the region’s biodiversity, faulty methodology like sparse usage of camera traps and the lack of multi-season studies, and also omissions of information.

In May 2022, the wildlife clearance for the project was set aside by the Supreme Court in view of the biodiversity impact on the Western Ghats. The court sought a fresh and detailed biodiversity impact assessment. The job of preparing the new biodiversity study went to Wildlife Institute of India (WII). But there is ample reason to be concerned here too.

First, in a clear instance of conflict of interest, the scope of work of the study by WII is set by RVNL, the railway company which is the project proponent, according to a copy of the terms of reference obtained by this reporter under the Right to Information Act. Incidentally, the terms of the faulty IISc study too were set by RVNL.

The second issue is that one of the terms says: “Prepare environmental management and monitoring plan for all phases of construction and operation to minimise any possible impact and proper compliance of suggested mitigation measures are in place”. This suggests a foregone conclusion that the project will be developed and tries to mitigate rather than avoid when the first rule in impact assessment is the principle of avoidance. Then come the alternatives, both with respect to site selection and technologies to be used.

“It is like a student setting the exam paper,” said Ritwick Dutta, an environmental lawyer and co-founder of the New Delhi-based law group, Legal Initiative for Forest and Environment (LIFE), referring to the terms of environmental assessments being set by project developers. On the emphasis on mitigation, Dutta explained that it meant that the decision on the project had already been taken and the entire process of impact assessment was “a mere formality… an empty formality aimed at finding reasons to justify the project”.

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The third major issue is that in the letter of acceptance of the financial proposal by WII for the study, the railway company suggests that the decision regarding environmental management and monitoring plan be taken at the stage of commencement of the project in the wildlife sanctuary area. This is in complete disregard to the well established protocol to have such plans in place prior to commencement of projects. A copy of this letter of acceptance was obtained via RTI by the Amche Mollem campaign and shared with this reporter.

On September 17, this reporter sent an email to the directors of RVNL and to concerned persons at WII flagging the concerns about conflict of interest and a compromised mandate for the study. The response is awaited.

“All three project proposals have come under the scanner for the lack of thorough impact assessment studies. All of them were accorded clearances virtually via video conferencing during the COVID lockdown in April 2020 without site visits.”

According to Malaika Mathew Chawla, a volunteer with the Goa-based Amche Mollem citizen’s campaign, the impact assessments for this project have been “fraught with conflict” from the very beginning. She referred to the fact that one of the authors of the study by IISc was Raman Sukumar, who is a member of the standing committee of the National Board for Wildlife, which initially granted wildlife clearance for the project. It pays to note that WII is a member of the standing committee of the National Board for Wildlife (NBWL), which will soon reassess the project for wildlife clearance. NBWL is the apex statutory body in India that is primarily responsible for wildlife conservation in the country.

“The issue of concern is not just whether the decision (by the standing committee of the National Board for Wildlife) will be biased, but whether there is a reasonable likelihood of bias,” Dutta said.

RTI reply on the terms of reference.

RTI reply on the terms of reference. | Photo Credit: By Special Arrangement

The move to double the railway line is one of three proposed projects, the other two are the laying of a 400-kV transmission line and the expansion of a national highway from Belagavi to Panaji from the existing two lanes to four lanes. Both will involve clear-felling of forests. All three project proposals have come under the scanner for the lack of thorough impact assessment studies. All of them were accorded clearances virtually via video conferencing during the COVID lockdown in April 2020 without site visits. Many experts have noted the need for a cumulative impact assessment of all three projects given the fact that, taken together, the overall impact could be more adverse than when assessed individually.

The Amche Mollem campaign won the Wildlife Service Award in 2021 for organising Goans from all walks of life, from students and lawyers to fisherfolk, farmers and artists to send letters and petitions to the concerned officials, including the NBWL, the Goa government and the Central Empowered Committee (CEC) of the Supreme Court.

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In fact, the CEC strongly criticised the project stating it “does not find any justification for undertaking a project of this nature which will destroy the fragile ecosystem of the Western Ghats which is an internationally recognised biodiversity hot spot and also one of the most important wildlife corridors of the country. Moreover, this doubling project will only marginally enhance the capacity of the most inefficient section of the Railway Network passing through ecologically sensitive and biodiversity rich Tiger Reserve, two Wildlife Sanctuaries, and a National Park.”

The CEC also urged the Supreme Court to revoke the wildlife clearance granted to the project by the standing committee of the NBWL. It remains unclear if the study by WII has been finalised and submitted to the NBWL. Another RTI request has been sent to WII seeking a copy of the study but there has been no response yet.

Rishika Pardikar is an environment reporter covering science, law, and policy. She is based in Dehradun.

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