New Delhi: A Parliamentary panel headed by former Union Environment Minister Jairam Ramesh has criticised an attempt by the Narendra Modi-led government to tweak India's wildlife protection laws. The changes are being made to secure definitive approvals for industrial projects in ecologically fragile areas rich in flora and fauna, the panel said.
In a report recently submitted to the Parliament, the panel has noted that committees constituted for wildlife clearances at the state level, as envisaged by the central government, might end up as mere "rubber stamps" if independent members are not included in them.
The panel, a 29-member Parliamentary Standing Committee on Science and Technology, Environment, Forests and Climate Change, recommended the inclusion of at least three institutional members and the Director of Wildlife Institute of India into these committees. In its evaluation of the Wildlife Protection Amendment Bill 2021, the panel expressed apprehension that the state-level panels that have been proposed "will be packed with official members, and may end up being a rubber stamp for faster clearances of projects."
Conservationists and experts have, at the same time, cast aspersions on the draft Bill for its potential to enable corporates extraction of precious natural resources of the country after sidelining local communities.
The panel has recommended the inclusion of at least one-third of all non-official members of the respective State Boards of Wildlife (SBWL) into the aforementioned proposed state-level committees. Through the amendment Bill, which was introduced in Parliament in December 2021, the central government has sought to empower each SBWL to constitute its own Standing Committee for the purpose of "exercising certain delegated powers and duties". However, as per the Bill, these standing committees will consist of the vice-chairperson and member-secretary of the respective SBWL. A maximum number of ten additional members can be inducted into the Standing Committee by the vice-chairperson from amongst the members of the SBWL, the Bill further suggested.
"The Bill again envisages that each Board or its Standing Committee will be free to create various committees, sub-committees or study groups from time to time for the proper discharge of functions. It is necessary that the respective SBWL approves all recommendations or decisions by these committees or sub-committees before implementation," said Debi Goenka of the Mumbai-based environmental organisation Conservation Action Trust. He further said, "But firstly, over-arching powers proposed to be assigned to the vice-chairperson of respective SBWLs in the appointment of Standing Committees should be curtailed. Members of each Standing Committee should either be appointed by the National Board for Wildlife or the respective SBWL."
The proposal to constitute standing committees of state-level wildlife boards, by amending the Wildllife (Protection) Act, 1972, comes in the backdrop of the fact that the National Board for Wildlife (NBWL) has not met even once after the formation of its Standing Committee in the year 2014. As per the Act's provisions, this central-level Board has to mandatorily meet at least twice a year. Immediately after being elected to power following the massive victory of the Bharatiya Janata Party in the general elections of 2014, one of the first tasks undertaken by Prime Minister Narendra Modi was to reconstitute the composition of the NBWL and constitute a Standing Committee for the purpose of conducting appraisals of infrastructure projects located in areas rich in wildlife.
"We have further suggested imposition of a ban on the use of mechanical earth moving equipment within protected areas, for example, wildlife sanctuaries or reserved forests, except in exceptional circumstances like natural disasters. This is intended to discourage civil works within the protected areas which seem to be proliferating because of liberal availability of funds with forest departments for the purpose of compensatory afforestation," Goenka further added.
The Bill has also been criticised for the attempt to reduce the number of Schedules – containing lists of protected species of plants and animals – from the original Act.
At present, the Act has six Schedules in all; one is devoted exclusively to specially protected plants and four are dedicated to specially protected animals, while another schedule contains a list of vermin species. (Vermin refers to parasitic animals that carry disease or destroy food).
However, the amendment Bill seeks to reduce the total number of schedules to four: the number of Schedules for specially protected animals has been sought to be reduced to two, with one containing a list of species that need greater protection. The Bill completely eliminates the Schedule containing a list of vermin species and instead seeks the introduction of a new Schedule for specimens listed in the Appendices under the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES).
A number of environmental organisations, including the Conservation Action Trust, have recommended a separate Act to implement the CITES provisions, which is a multilateral treaty to regulate the international trade of species of endangered plants and wildlife to ensure their survival. However, the Jairam Ramesh-headed panel, on its part, recommended an amendment to the Biological Diversity Act, 2002, to implement the provisions of CITES in India.
"The [Parliamentary Standing] Committee [has] observed that amending the Biological Diversity Act, 2002 would be the most appropriate way of implementing CITES, as the mandate of CITES is sustainable use of biodiversity. It also observed that the approach under the Bill will make the principal Act complicated and might introduce contradictions," the panel noted in its report.
As the name suggests, the Biological Diversity Act, 2002 contains provisions to conserve biological diversity in India, sustainable use of its components and equitable sharing of benefits from biological resources.
In its present form, the Wildlife (Protection) Act, 1972 entrusts the responsibility of controlling, managing, and maintaining wildlife sanctuaries with each state government's respective Chief Wild Life Warden. The Bill envisages the discharge of these responsibilities according to sanctuary-specific management plans. These plans will be prepared as per guidelines of the central government after due consultation with concerned Gram Sabhas in areas with predominantly tribal populations; in such places, provisions of the Scheduled Tribes and Other Traditional Forest Dwellers (Recognition of Forest Rights) Act, 2006 – known popularly as the Forest Rights Act, 2006 – are applicable.
"Interestingly, the Bill speaks about local self-governance in Schedule 5 areas with respect to Gram Sabhas under Forest Rights Act but omits mention of the PESA Act [Panchayat (Extension to the Scheduled Areas) Act, 1996]," Rebbapragada Ravi of MM&P (mines, minerals and PEOPLE), an alliance of individuals and communities affected by mining, told the Newsclick. Ravi added, "It is a fact too well known that areas rich in wildlife in India are also those that not only have a pre-ponderance of various Scheduled Tribe communities but are also rich in rare and precious natural resources like minerals. This move is indicative of the trend to concentrate power with the central and state governments and make it easy for the mining industry to acquire and expand their operations under the policy of ease of business. The central government is paving the way for corporates to easily exploit minerals in the country, by a series of amendments to the environmental and mining regulatory regime in India,"
The PESA Act is a law enacted by the Union government to ensure local self-governance through traditional Gram Sabhas for people living in Scheduled Areas of the country. Scheduled Areas are notified under the Fifth Schedule of the Constitution of India for their economic backwardness and predominance of the Scheduled Tribe population.
The move to amend the Wildlife (Protection) Act, 1972 comes close on the heels of largescale changes to laws governing forest conservation in the country as proposed by the central government. The Centre has proposed to do away with several regulatory requirements needed to divert forestland for non-forest use in a draft amendment to the Forest (Conservation) Act, 1980, which was released in October last year.
Conservationists had earlier flagged amendments proposed to forest laws on the ground that it was intended to benefit corporates in the ease of doing business.