The central government has started relaxing norms that protect the environment in favour of industry and development projects, leading to loss of forests, habitat, and wildlife.

BY NEHA SINHA AND T R SHANKAR RAMAN

India’s nature reserves and surrounding landscapes are caught in a bind. This bind envelops all: from trees to tigers, rivers to rhinos, and hornbills to humans. Even as it has become apparent that ecological processes sustaining life and livelihoods span wide landscapes, government policies are narrowing the spaces for conservation and sustainable development. New relaxations of environmental norms by the central government are systematically giving the go-ahead to projects deemed necessary for economic growth, effectively hemming wildlife into inadequate and impractical spaces.

Take the case of tigers in Central India, a landscape renowned for its forest tracts, and the significant populations of tigers, leopards, and other wildlife they contain.

In late 2013, a genetic study revealed that tigers in Central India may travel as much as 650 kilometres—navigating a vast landscape of forest, rivers, and countryside peppered with towns and villages—between tiger reserves in the heart of India. The scientists, who published this research in the journal PLoS ONE, highlighted the need to conserve corridors between reserves, and simultaneously stave off threats posed by roads and urbanisation.

But in March 2015, the National Highway Authority of India (NHAI) began felling trees to widen a section of the NH7 near the Maharashtra-Madhya Pradesh border. The highway slices through crucial tiger habitats in and adjoining Pench Tiger Reserve. The expansion was initiated on the orders of the Nagpur bench of the Bombay High Court, which took suo motu cognisance of the poor road condition. Relaxation of norms by the Centre meant the work could proceed even though stage II forest clearance has still not been obtained.

Over the last year, the NDA government, in a series of orders, has set about fast-tracking “linear projects”. This is backed by the perception that linear projects were being slowed down by existing environment clearance and land acquisition regimes. Thus, now Gram Sabha consent is not required and environment and forest clearances procedures have been de-linked for linear projects. A road can start being built even if forest clearances have not been obtained for the forest to be “diverted” (read cut down).

Minister for Environment, Forests and Climate Change, Prakash Javadekar, has said that there is a need to create standard policy for all linear projects, instead of considering them on a case-by-case basis. For instance, road projects within 100 kilometres from the Line of Actual Control have received general clearance without considering individual site- and project-specific needs.

But what are linear (“in a line”) projects? Several government communications bunch linear projects (such as roads, transmission lines, railways, canals, and irrigation projects) together, almost as if they were one category, unmindful of their varying impacts on the environment. Many of these projects span several states and multiple ecosystems such as grasslands and rivers to forest, scything through city, countryside, and the wild.

But they are never quite in “lines”: most often these projects have to make bridges over rivers, build check dams or reservoirs or housing, slash through forests, divert fertile land, and displace wildlife. Roads connect into networks, and together with powerlines and other projects, slice and dice the landscape. The spillover impacts on ecosystems on either side such as tree death, spread of invasive species, and change in animal movement, which biologists call “edge effects”, range from metres to kilometres. What results are not “lines” in the landscape, but a warp and weft of broad strips that cleave the original ecosystem into fragments.

And fragments have direct impacts on species. When the size of the forest patch drops, species may decline or disappear as resources become inadequate, as shown by studies on lion-tailed macaques and hornbills in the Western Ghats. Many Indian wild species move a lot. Not only that: several species like tigers, leopards, and elephants, need to move to survive. Instead of acknowledging this need, the government’s orders on linear projects seems to reflect the unilateral way that roads are being looked at today: all roads, no matter in which landscape, are seen as benign, and as engines of India’s growth.

Still, not everyone agrees with this view. The Central Indian forest tract serves not just as a habitat in itself, but also acts as a corridor connecting Pench, Nagzira, and Kanha Tiger Reserves. The landscape that served as inspiration for Rudyard Kipling’s The Jungle Book continues to remain a source of inspiration for citizens, who are loth to see it changed for further human expansion.

“1035 [wildlife] deaths have been recorded in this highway stretch in about 400 days,” says a representative from the group. “Need we say more on how serious the impact of this highway is?”

Concerned wildlife enthusiasts have set up an online petition against any further broadening of the highway, suggesting that an alternate alignment recommended by experts be considered; it has nearly 10,000 signatures. An appeal filed by a Nagpur NGO, Srushti Paryavaran Mandal, is before the National Green Tribunal. Apart from that, 45 organisations have written to the Prime Minister, asking him to reconsider widening the road.

While there is no response from the government as yet, other wilderness areas, perhaps matching in their biodiversity but not quite so well-known, are slated to be cut into pieces by roads, large highways, and transmissions lines.

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