NAGPUR: In a move that will spell doom for tigers, the National Board for Wildlife(NBWL), the top decision making body on projects falling in and around protected areas (PAs), has cleared diversion of 160.94 hectare forest area of Wan sanctuary inside Melghat Tiger Reserve (MTR) for upgradation of metre gauge railway line.
The railways has taken up work on Akola-Khandwa (176km) gauge conversion work between vulnerable Akot-Amlakhurd railway stations under South Central Railway (SCR). It involves diversion of 160.94 ha forest area of Wan and cuts the reserve towards southern tip.
The issue had figured in April 5, 2016 meeting of state board for wildlife (SBWL) in which, owing to opposition from a section of members, it was decided to form a panel to conduct site inspection. The state's chief wildlife warden has already recommended the project with certain mitigation measures.
Of the 176km railway line, over 38km passes through wildlife rich area of tiger reserve and buffer zone. Yet, the upgradation was recommended as there was tremendous pressure from the MoEFCC to clear the project at any cost.
On May 9-10, 2016, a five-member expert panel conducted detailed assessment with regard to feasibility of the project, vis-a-vis tiger dispersal, habitat connectivity for genetic exchange, protection threat at present and after the project impact by NTCA.
The project is going to cause permanent damage to wildlife and tigers, that migrate till Muktainagar in Jalgaon and beyond. However, the railways is of view that alternative route will involve felling of thousands of trees and would lead to cost escalation by several times. No mention is made by what amount the cost will escalate.
Sources said, when NBWL meeting was held on January 3, environment minister was not ready to listen anything against the project. Hence, the Standing Committee of NBWL recommended it subject to mitigation measures.
On the contrary, ex-member of NBWL Kishor Rithe, who was member of the joint inspection panel, had suggested an alternate alignment in the same report where PCCF (wildlife) had suggested mitigation measures further, if alignment is not possible.
Later, Rithe, in his representation to railway minister Suresh Prabhu on June 9, had said that work between Amalakhurd-Akot (77.5km) passes through hilly part of MTR. "If the railways follow the same alignment and gradient, it will not allow to attain the speed more than 60 kmph and also won't connect maximum villages from Akola-Amravati and Buldhana districts. Considering both the aspects, people in this region as well as MTR administration had demanded diversion of this line through plain area to maximize benefits," said Rithe.
Elaborating its numerous negative impacts on wildlife, Rithe stated that present line passes through core area and has caused deaths of many wild animals and reptiles, especially during monsoon and winter. There are several incidents of using this train route for illegally transporting forest produce and wildlife derivatives from the reserve.
Earlier, PK Srivastava, the then GM of SCR, had conducted a detailed inspection of this line on May 29, 2014, and had suggested alternative route from outside sanctuary area. Accordingly, an alternate route bypassing sanctuary was planned but due to political interference the plan was killed.
"The change to broad gauge is bound to increase traffic and disturbance in the reserve. This would certainly result in increase in animal kills and increase in trafficking of wildlife," says Pushp Jain, director, EIA Resource and Response Centre.
In the backdrop of the environment ministry’s budgetary allocation going up by 19% for 2017-18, an official said as many as 960 infrastructure projects have been given environmental clearances (ECs) in the past two years.
According to the official, 770 projects with investment potential of Rs.10 trillion were given ECs between May 2014 and March 2016. “After March 2016, 190 projects have been given environmental clearances till date,” said another ministry official on condition of anonymity.
In the run up to 2014 Lok Sabha elections, Prime Minister Narendra Modi had said the government would simplify green clearances to boost industrial growth. The industry had repeatedly complained that delay in green clearances made several projects unviable. “A lot of steps have been taken for streamlining EC processes when the National Democratic Alliance (NDA) government came to power. Terms of reference, which earlier used to take around 6-9 months, have been standardised. The EC system has been made completely online. Powers have been given to state governments for small infrastructure projects seeking ECs.
“Earlier, a lot of proposals for highway expansion used to come to the Centre. To ease the process, the ministry changed rules for clearances for highway expansion projects. Now, any expansion which is more than 40m in width and 100km length will come to the Centre for approval. Otherwise, they can take permission from state environmental impact assessment committee,” added the official.
Environment impact assessment (EIA) consists of four steps — screening, scoping, public consultation and appraisal.
In 2014, Adani Ports and Special Economic Zone Ltd (APSEZ), India’s largest port developer controlled by billionaire Gautam Adani, had secured environmental and coastal regulation zone clearance for its controversial SEZ in Mundra, Gujarat, from the ministry of environment and forests.
A Rs.3,813 crore project of the Karnataka State Industrial and Infrastructure Development Corp. Ltd to build a multi-purpose all-weather port at Tadadi was given a go-ahead in December 2016. The Delhi-Jaipur Expressway had also got the environmental nod this financial year.
Recently, in December 2016, a meeting of the Expert Appraisal Committee for river valley and hydro-electric projects recommended a project for construction of a 77m high and 2,031m-long composite dam across Ken river near village Daudhan in Chhatarpur district in Madhya Pradesh.
Queries e-mailed to the environment ministry on 6 February remained unanswered.
Experts are, however, sceptical of the move.
“Project evaluation is more important in giving environmental clearances. The conditions they have mentioned in the report have been complied with and site verification has been done. The ministry needs to check whether the environmental management plan in the EIA report has been followed or not. It doesn’t matter whether the process has been fastened or not, what matters is the monitoring of these projects,” said Sujit Kumar Singh, senior programme manager (impact assessment) at Centre for Science and Environment.
Amit Anand Choudhary| TNN | Updated: Feb 9, 2017, 03.32 AM IST
The court's direction will cover over 2 lakh wetlands across India which were identified through satellite imagery by ISRO and the Centre has been asked to draw up a phased plan of action to conserve the water bodies.
Emphasising the important role of wetlands in maintaining ecological balance, a bench of Justices Madan B Lokur and Prafulla C Pant directed the Centre to notify all 2,01,503 wetlands and asked the states to provide details too.
The bench set a deadline of June 30 to frame policy for preservation of wetlands that are seen as effective carbon sinks to mitigate climate change and support a wide variety of arial, land and acquatic wildlife and fauna.
Wetlands are defined as areas of land either temporarily or permanently covered by water and play a key role in the hydrological cycle in storm and flood control, water supply, providing food, fibre and raw materials. They support lakhs of migratory birds from colder regions of the world in summers, apart from mangroves that protect coastlines and filter pollutants.
With wetlands endangered by land grabbing activities, including by initiatives by state and central governments that include releasing lands for commercial development, environmentalists approached the Supreme Court seeking measures to protect the ecosystems. The SC has been examining the issue since 2001 and passed various orders.
The Centre informed the court it had formed a comprehensive scheme of National Plan for Conservation of Aquatic Eco-systems (NPCA) for conservation and restoration of lakes and wetlands. "The ministry has so far identifies 115 wetlands and 63 lakes in 24 states and 2 union territories for conservation and management under the scheme. So far, since 1987-88 an amount of Rs 780 crore has been released for undertaking various conservation activities," the government said.
Advocate Gopal Shankarnarayanan, appearing for the petitioner, told the bench that steps taken by the government were not sufficient and many wetlands had been encroached upon over the years that this poses a grave threat to local floura and fauna. He said the Centre must take a holistic approach to preserve all water bodies.
ISRO had in 2011 prepared a national wetlands atlas on the basis of satellite image and 201503 wetlands were mapped. Total wetland area estimated is 15.26 Mha, which is around 4.63 per cent of the geographic area of the country. Area under inland wetlands is 10.56 million hectare and area under coastal wetlands is 4.14 Mha.
“Completely meeting requirements of revised environmental norms by December 2017 may not be feasible,” admits the office of Ravindra Kumar Verma, chief of CEA.
Faced with the fact that almost none of the over 400 thermal power plants across the country has complied with new emission norms notified more than a year ago, the Government is learnt to have decided to relax the December 2017 deadline — and even dilute the standards it had set.
It was in December 2015 that the Environment Ministry laid down, for the first time, emission norms for Nitrogen and Sulphur oxides (NOx and SOx) for thermal plants. It also fixed stricter limits for particulate matter (PM) emission and consumption of water.
Short of a year to the deadline, none of the units has fully complied.
“Completely meeting requirements of revised environmental norms by December 2017 may not be feasible,” admits the office of Ravindra Kumar Verma, chief of the Central Electricity Authority (CEA).
Asked why, it said that the power utilities have demanded “relaxation of standards” due to technological issues, huge civil work, very high capital cost and non-availability of space in existing plants to accommodate green technologies.
This non-compliance flies in the face of the Clean Coal Policy declared in India’s Intended Nationally Determined Contribution towards climate justice in October 2015 and the claims made in last week’s Budget to promote clean energy by adding 20 GW of solar power capacity.
The non-compliance shouldn’t come as a surprise.
For, right from the draft stage to the post-notification phase, the move to raise the bar faced stiff resistance from within the government and the industry.
In June 2015, the biggest player in the sector, National Thermal Power Corporation (NTPC), in its comment to the Environment ministry wrote that the proposed norms were “much more stringent than (those) prescribed by World Bank and even. China in some parameters.”
The same month, in a separate response to the said draft, the Union Power Ministry attached a table listing emission norms for thermal plants in China to argue that India’s were tougher.
On paper, the Chinese standards attached with the Power Ministry’s response were indeed a lot more generous than those proposed for India. The catch: this was data from four years earlier and China had long revised and upgraded these standards to levels far more stringent than those notified by India in 2015.
Three months after the Environment Ministry notified the standards in December 2015, NTPC sought relaxation despite the fact that its objections to the draft emission standards were set aside by the Environment Ministry before notification. But the maharatna company refused to give in.
When asked to explain the non-compliance, an NTPC spokesperson said that the “CEA is preparing a phasing plan for implementation of new environmental plan. (which) is expected by March 2017” and that “NTPC shall formalise the action plan. subsequent to phasing plan by CEA and revision in the new norms” (as applicable).”
The Environment Ministry itself is to blame as well.
It did not specify the new standards on a number of occasions while appraising or issuing clearances to thermal plants post-notification.
For example, environmental clearances given to NTPC’s Ramagundam plant in January 2016 and to KU Thermal Power Private Ltd’s super critical project in Tamil Nadu in March 2016 said emissions standards for particulate matter should not exceed 50 mg/Nm3 (normal cubic metre) even though the plants were to be commissioned in 2018 and were required to limit emission to 30 mg/Nm3.
Asked to explain this, the Ministry told the National Green Tribunal that the terms were “inadvertently not amended” while issuing the approved clearance.