The real priority of the Ministry of Environment, Forests and Climate Change is apparent from its own communications: project clearances. Take the ministry’s brochure of achievements, “Towards Transparency and Good Governance”, released in January 2015. The number of times various words appeared in the document was illustrative: projects was mentioned 51 times, proposals 20 times, conservation was mentioned thrice, while the words “threatened” and “endangered” never featured at all.

The chapter on “Protection of Wildlife” prominently listed projects that were cleared in and around wildlife protected areas, including three roads, a powerline, a railway line, expansion of a gas field, and extension of a fence along the India- Bangladesh border in Dampa Tiger Reserve, Mizoram.

The only other items listed were the creation of an online portal for zoos, burning seized wildlife products in the Delhi Zoo, and constituting the National Board for Wildlife (the latter controversially constituted without the requisite number of non-official members, then reconstituted under scrutiny of the Supreme Court).

Meanwhile, serious wildlife protection issues were relegated to the background. In Dampa Tiger Reserve itself, for example, frontline staff went unpaid for months until late March, by which time it was also apparent that the Centre had slashed by 15 per cent the annual budgetary allocation for Project Tiger across the country. Conservation plans for critically endangered species such as the Great Indian Bustard (down to less than 150 individuals in the wild) and Jerdon’s Courser, and programmes related to the National Heritage Animal, the Asian elephant, continue to languish for attention.

The ministry made much of a report that tiger numbers had increased, even as conservation scientists raised concerns over the future of non-protected forest corridors which are imperative for tiger breeding. Some highlighted urgent needs in tiger reserves such as Buxa and others in north-east India where tigers appear to have disappeared.

Casting environment as a “road-block” to development rather than as a cross-cutting issue that deserves attention, the ministry has focused on speeding up project clearances. Creating an efficient and transparent system of project clearances has been a long-standing demand of industry. Non-official members of statutory committees like the Forest Advisory Committee and National Board for Wildlife have also suggested specific measures such as forming a panel of experts who could be consulted for independent and timely appraisal of projects, providing better and detailed maps of proposed project sites and potential alternate alignments, and formulating policy and guidelines for projects such as linear intrusions in natural areas.

The ministry, while creating an online clearance application system for project proponents, has however taken an approach that mostly involves lifting or watering down regulations through orders and communications to states to facilitate more project clearances, without due consideration of what happens after the project, or of potential re-alignments and re-designs. Meanwhile, an RTI application recently revealed that only four per cent of industrial projects were stalled because of environmental clearances, raising a serious question over the choice of priority and motivations behind the ministry’s dominant focus on project clearances over the first year of the new government.

The government’s efforts to fast-track clearances contravenes processes laid out in the Forest Conservation Act of 1980. “We are at a situation today where the only paradigm for economic growth in India is slated to be industrial development. And within this paradigm, taking away forest land is seen as a means of grasping this development. Over the last year, environmental regulations and law have been made out to be hindrances and enemies of India’s growth. We have a serious problem now, where ministries themselves don’t seem to be interested in upholding existing laws like the Forest Conservation Act or the Wildlife Protection Act,” says environmental lawyer Ritwick Dutta.

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