This week, the Supreme Court issued a notice regarding the non functioning of the country’s National Board for Wildlife (NBWL), which is supposed to be the key body ensuring wildlife protection and upholding the principles enshrined in the Wildlife Protection Act. A three-judge bench led by CJI S A Bobde issued the direction in a public interest petition filed seeking direction to convene the first meeting of the Board after it was reconstituted in 2014.
The petition had contended that by not convening a single meeting, the National Board for Wildlife failed in following the mandate of the Wildlife Protection Act and in upholding the DPSP (Directive Principles of State Policy) under Article 48A, Live Law reported.
The NBWL is to be chaired by the Prime Minister and is supposed to have 47 members with its focus being centred on reviewing wildlife-related matters and approving projects in and around national parks and sanctuaries. Moreover, no alteration of boundaries in national parks and wildlife sanctuaries can be done without the approval of the NBWL.
Moreover, the apex court has also pulled up the central government over its inability to set up an “independent environment regulator” to oversee green clearances. A bench led by the CJI asked Additional Solicitor General Aishwarya Bhati to find out and report to the court. It was highlighted that the court had ordered the setting up of a national environment regulatory body to ensure independent oversight of green clearances way back in July 2011.
Activists and lawyers say that the latest developments are in fact not new but what is noteworthy is the shift in focus of the board and the government to clearances and not conservation. Besides, it is lacking a system of checks for the clearances of projects.
Speaking to NewsClick, environmental activist Vikrant Tongad said, “The purpose was to create a body to take decisions on key projects; this was supposed to be a high level board with the PM heading it. Over time, the government has shifted its view to see the board as one handing out clearances to projects. Instead, the focus was supposed to be conservation, to ensure that wildlife habitats did not get affected. However, the discussions have not been focused on conservation.”
He added, “While the SC has taken cognisance of it, the national board has become a show piece. Their focus is on denotification, such as the denotification of wildlife sanctuaries.”
Last year, in a crucial development during the Wildlife Week, the NBWL recommended de-notification and diversion of more than 1,000 sq km of 'protected areas' and even allowed activities, which could easily be located outside of the green zones.
The recommendation involves Hastinapur Wildlife Sanctuary in Uttar Pradesh, Mukundra National Park in Rajasthan and Bahu Conservation Reserve in Jammu district, which are key conservation zones.
Rahul Choudhary, an environmental lawyer at LIFE (legal initiative for forests and environment), said, “The court gives kind of a recommendation; non-functionality of the board is coming in the way of projects so that is one angle. Another aspect is, even if the board is functioning, they are becoming a body to give clearances such as denotification, which does not fall under the scope of the board. In the past, there was a strong conservationist vision; it was about discussions on projects than to look at whether or not a clearance should be given. Now, it has more to do with granting of clearances and going on to denotify regions.” Choudhury stresses that “whatever has been done for so many years, is being undone.” He said the projects that were being cleared at present were not site-specific projects such as roads, which is leading to the board “exceeding its jurisdiction.”
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