Aggravating Covid-19 fallout: Dilution of environmental standards

India must preserve its natural forests, it must comply with growing trees to 2.5 to 3 billion tonne of carbon sequestration
Last Updated 26 July 2020, 18:35 IST

The World Health Organization (WHO) has been warning for years that habitat destruction is changing the pattern of infectious diseases. We have faced growing number of zoonotic diseases like rabies, ebola, severe acute respiratory syndrome, Middle East respiratory syndrome and Covid-19 spreading from animals to humans.

To control the outbreak, human-wildlife interface needs be minimised. More effort be made by international communities to check wildlife trafficking. Even civil societies should drive people to reduce consumer demand for wildlife species.

These species are consumed by the people and the body parts are used for preparing traditional medicines and manufacturing goods for human use. In trade markets, wildlife species are warehoused in unsanitary conditions and some of them are stored in ice blocks.

Water from ice-melting carries virus through the passage where traders walk. Such high-risk wildlife markets are needed to be shutdown especially in high-density human areas. The emergence of any virus anywhere can impact people everywhere.

After the lockdown, economic stimuli are in place. Granting forest and environment clearances to boost the economy is a matter of concern. First, the Forest Advisory Committee (FAC) of Ministry of Environment and Forests & Climate Change (MoEF&CC), to overcome the impact of lockdown, recommended automatic extension of validity of forest clearance for government-owned mines, whose lease period is extended by 20 years.

This means that without assessing the impact, forest diversion is approved for 20 years or at least till the expiry of the lease.

Second, mining operation was classified as essential service during lockdown; MoEF&CC, during March 2020, extended the validity of environmental clearances till June 30. This was done without studying the impact and without monitoring the compliance of stipulated conditions. The Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) notification is newly drafted to allow post facto approval of projects without environmental clearance, reduces time for public notice to raise concerns about the project and removes requirement of public hearing in some cases.

Third, the standing committee of National Board for Wildlife headed by Union Environment Minister Prakash Javadekar met through video conferencing and cleared 31 proposals, 16 of which are for allowing highways, transmission lines and railway lines projects through national parks, wildlife sanctuaries and tiger corridors.

Among those projects cleared include: 168 hectares (ha) forest land for a railway line through tiger corridor in Telangana, highway up-gradation through Gangotri National Park, highway expansion through Mollem Wildlife Sanctuary in Goa, 768 ha forest land for Lakwar Vyasi hydroelectric power project close to Binog Wildlife Sanctuary in Uttarakhand, expansion of National Highway through Mahaveer Sanctuary Goa etc are important ones.

The Mahaveer Wildlife Sanctuary is adjoining Kali tiger reserve in Karnataka. A few months earlier, a tigress with three cubs were poisoned there. Approval of the national highway expansion in the sanctuary is detrimental to tiger conservation.

Fourth, a sub-committee of FAC on April 23 recommended clearance of 3,097 MW Etalin hydroelectric project in Arunachal Pradesh’s Dibang Valley district, based on a report of a field study by the Wildlife Institute of India (WII). The location of the project is 12 km from Dibang Wildlife Sanctuary and is proposed at the cost of Rs 25,000 crore.

It would require felling of 2,78,038 trees over 11.65 sq km high-quality sub-tropical evergreen broad-leaved forests comprising of rare and endangered flora and fauna. The FAC had considered this project four times since 2015. In the fourth sitting in February 2017, it sought a “multiple seasonal replicate study” to assess the abundance of wildlife, which was entrusted to WII at Rs 1.70 crore. The cost of study was borne by the project developer.

Fifth, the Union government has asked each mineral state to identify at least five new mining projects for auction with pre-embedded forests and environment clearances. A Project Monitoring Unit in each of the states will move the Indian Bureau of Mines for approval of mining plans in 15 days and will also obtain environment clearance and stage I clearance under Forest (Conservation) Act 1980 before the auction.

The eastern states of Odisha, Jharkhand and Chhattisgarh are identifying open caste mining of iron ore and manganese in areas having luxuriant natural forests. New blocks in Ballari (Karnataka) will also be exposed and destruction of vegetation is inevitable.

Commercial mining

Sixth, 41 coal blocks are being auctioned for commercial mining at a time when the cost of production of power from non-conventional sources is the cheapest. Coal reserves are again in areas with luxuriant tree growth, which will have to be sacrificed for mining.

In the economic stimulus during corona pandemics announced by Union Finance Minister Nirmala Sitharaman, Rs 50,000 crore is earmarked for infrastructure development for the coal sector. Forests will have to be sacrificed for rail siding, roads and other coal infrastructure.

The seventh point is the clarification of Ministry of Road Transport and Highways on June 30 that compensatory afforestation (CA) over non-forest land is substituted by CA on double the degraded forest land in lieu of forest land diverted for road projects of Government of India. The policy is anti-conservation as it leads to a reduction in tree cover. Forests close to villages are degraded owing to anthropogenic pressure, and it is difficult to halt degradation in such cases.

At a time when coronavirus pandemic has taken control over the life of the people, their mobility and livelihood, it is necessary to reduce greenhouse gas emission and achieve carbon sink targets set in the Paris Accord. India must preserve its natural forests and in addition, it must comply with its commitment to grow trees for 2.5 to 3 billion tonne of carbon sequestration.

The UN has indefinitely postponed Conference of Parties (COP26) scheduled in Glasgow by this year-end. If negotiations are not happening, the momentum and action will slow down. However, the chances of climate negotiation will be brighter if Joe Biden wins the US presidency.

(The writer is retired Principal Chief Conservator of Forests, Karnataka)

(Published 26 July 2020, 17:19 IST)

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