'Most citizen conservation campaigns are rhetorical'

'Most citizen conservation campaigns are restricted to rhetoric'

Sanjay Gubbi

The Karnataka State Board for Wildlife has become a medium to get project clearances, while its responsibility is to advise the government on conservation policies and programmes, says Conservation Biologist and board member Sanjay Gubbi in an email interview with DH's Anitha Pailoor

There has been criticism about the clearance given for projects within the forest boundaries in the state... 

Some projects that have serious ecological consequences are cleared without providing any opportunity for field inspection by external experts, nor is the clearance based on available scientific information, the ecological importance of the area, or goes against the expert advise. Two recent examples are the Hubballi-Ankola railway line and the Sharavathi pumped storage project.

When it comes to the State Board for Wildlife (SBWL), members are not even given adequate notice of the meeting, to study the documents and be well prepared with reasonable arguments. Having said that, it will be unfair to ignore those people, both within the board and the government, who have genuinely fought for conservation, even if they have lost some battles.

I am happy that we were able to halt many ecologically destructive projects. Many of my proposals, including enhancing the protected area network of the state by nearly 7,50,000 acres, bringing additional social security measures such as wildlife allowance to the frontline staff, sanctioning of hundreds of new frontline staff posts in the forest department, increasing ex-gratia to families who suffer from human-wildlife conflict and several other such initiatives have been successfully implemented. As always, it has been a mixed bag, and we have been unable to stop a couple of destructive projects.

Is the government sidelining citizen campaigns and expert concerns against projects that could harm environment irreversibly?

Unfortunately, these days most citizen conservation campaigns have been restricted to a rhetorical outcry on social media, or models that are based on revenue generation using online petition engagements. Wildlife conservation for many is a fashion statement. Sadly, these social media heroes are becoming the face of conservation and misleading the public, media, and importantly the younger generation. Though many youngsters have the right intentions, they are misguided by these social media heroes. The number of individuals who succeed to get measurable on-ground changes are far and few. 

Is the government ignoring the repeated warnings of nature?

Government is certainly ignoring the warnings. But I would not blame only the political leadership. Business interests, bureaucrats, and even the general public are not taking these cues seriously. We seem to focus on short-term personal profits rather than the irreparable damages to our forests, wildlife and our future generations that includes our children.

There are concerns about the functioning of SBWL... 

The State Board for Wildlife started assuming importance during the mid-2000s as the forest department started to seek approval of the board for projects proposed within the protected areas. This brought in a lot of media attention about the board and people with little or no understanding about wildlife or wildlife policies, began aspiring to be part of the board. These days, most non-official members get nominated to the board using political clout. Besides, some individuals who have been booked under forest and wildlife laws for serious offences have also been appointed to Karnataka's State Board for Wildlife. Both trends have grave consequences. A hotelier, who was a member of the board till recently, has effectively stopped notifying pristine rainforests around Pushpagiri Wildlife Sanctuary as a protected area as he owns power generation projects inside these forests.

The board is now becoming a medium to get project clearances, or gain publicity in the media, while its duty is to advise the government in selection and management of protected areas, policy formulation for the conservation of wildlife, and harmonising the needs of forest dwellers and conservation of wildlife.

Do we have enough legal provisions to stem environmental destruction?

India has one of the best wildlife, forest and environment conservation laws. But the shortfall is in its implementation. Nonetheless, even these laws are now being diluted in the name of 'ease of business'. In addition, political and bureaucratic commitment has severely weaned over the years.

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