Tuesday, June 04, 2013

Spotlight: 'Drowning The Wildlife In Majathal Sanctuary'

By Kajol Singh / Delhi

Project proposals submitted to the NBWL routinely make a mockery of the law, bypassing decisions to their own end. A dam, constructed on the Satluj River without any wildlife clearances, will soon destroy and submerge a large tract of the Majathal Wildlife Sanctuary, one of the last refuges of the vulnerable Cheer Pheasant.

Disregarding the law and subverting regulatory Committee decisions, projects across the country pay no heed to environmental legislations.
Reports over the last few years have revealed time and again the manner in which powerful project proponents have made a mockery of the once illustrious National Board for Wildlife (NBWL). The members of the Standing Committee of the NBWL may well resign themselves to the position of toothless watchdogs.  Wildlife laws and India’s Supreme Court mandate that projects impacting protected areas, wildlife habitats and the ecologically sensitive zone around it be regulated by the Committee, however the decisions of the Board seem to be routinely disregarded. In the latest instance of subversion of the NBWL, a project that was rejected multiple times by the Committee has violated the law and is expected to come to fruition in the near future.

In October 2010, a project to construct the Kol Dam on the Sutlej River was turned down by the Standing Committee of the NBWL for a number of discrepancies. If cleared, the 800 MW Dam would submerge 125 hectares of Himachal Pradesh’s Majathal Wildlife Sanctuary.  The proposal for the dam submitted by the National Thermal Power Corporation (NTPC) not only failed to mention that Majathal is one of the few remaining strongholds of the Cheer Pheasant, a schedule one species that demands the same protection as the tiger, but also implied that zero trees would be felled for the project. 

Yet, a 2006 letter from the Centrally Empowered Committee to the Chief Secretary, Government of Himachal Pradesh requesting clarification on this matter received a very different reply. In their reply the State government estimated that the dam would submerge over 51,000 trees. Interestingly, the NTPC had stated they were unaware that any wildlife area would be submerged at all as they had taken over the project from the Himachal Pradesh State Electricity Board that claimed to have received environmental clearance in 1989. However, environmental lawyers point out that the environmental clearance process was only introduced in 1994. 

In addition, the NTPC had not conducted and thus not submitted a Biodiversity Impact report to the Committee, a report that is mandatory for any diversion of forestland that exceeds 50 hectares. To add to this laundry list of indiscretions, it was found that a large part of the construction work had already commenced and that the NTPC had already spent Rs 2,100 crore on the project. After discussions, the members of the Standing Committee unanimously rejected the proposal.

Through media reports, it later came to the notice of several members of the Standing Committee that even after the proposal was rejected, the NTPC had held a private meeting with officials from the Ministry of Environment and Forests (MoEF). It was alleged that the NTPC had been told to sugarcoat the proposal by reducing the submergence area of the dam. Non-official members of the Committee expressed their concerns about this development to the Minister in a letter dated 26 November 2010.

Sure enough, a supposedly revised proposal for the same project was on the agenda for the 28th meeting of the Standing Committee held on 20March 2013.  For the second time in three years, the committee unanimously rejected the project. The barely revised proposal did not address the issue of Cheer pheasant habitat and nor had the amount of land required for diversion been reduced. Committee members also expressed concern that NTPC had received recommendation from the State Board for Wildlife via circulation and that the Board had not actually met to discuss the project that would submerge a large part of a wildlife sanctuary and Schedule I species habitat. Most incriminatingly, the minutes of this meeting expose that the NTPC has completed 80 percent of the work with an investment of Rs 5800 crore, despite being rejected by the Standing Committee, NBWL and without obtaining any clearance from the NBWL. The Committee asked for all work to be stopped.

In spite of these two rejections, it seems the NTPC hopes to be third time lucky in obtaining a clearance. Officials in Himachal have revealed that the project is on the agenda for reconsideration in the upcoming June 2013 meeting of the Standing Committee. The NTPC are not wrong in being optimistic for their success. It is learnt that the Chief Minister of Himachal Pradesh has personally taken up the issue with Minister of Environment and Forests Jayanthi Natarajan. This no doubt will increase the pressure on the Standing Committee. 

In his letter, Chief Minister Virbhadra Singh writes “As per current status, with an investment of over Rs 5,400 crores, civil structures including the 167 metre height main rockfill dam, concrete spillway and power house are ready and we are waiting for lean flow season to commence reservoir impounding by Sept. 2013 to facilitate commissioning of units during 2014.”  A point worth noting is that the CM’s letter reveals that a majority of the work has been completed at considerable cost – all without the mandatory wildlife clearance.

When INN called the NTPC’s Delhi office for a quote and clarifications they were directed to approach the Project office. Multiple calls to their Bilaspur office however went unanswered, as did an email about the same.

A quick glance at environmental reports reveal that large projects regularly make hefty investments and start operations without any consideration for the law.  A few precedents to this current case include a thermal power plant in Tuticorin that commenced construction work without clearance from either the State Board or the NBWL, the construction of the Chirayu Medical College near the Bhoj lake in Bhopal without any environmental clearances, and the INN expose on the construction of a canal truncating Ranthambhore Tiger Reserve that was twice rejected by the Standing Committee. For the record there is no such thing as post – facto clearance under Indian laws.

The environmental impact of dams has been well documented in the past decade. In 2009 a report released by a one-man committee to monitor environmental compliance of hydel projects, headed by Avay Shukla (Additional Chief Secretary, Forests, HP) highlighted the havoc caused by ill- assessed Hydel projects in Himachal Pradesh. He notes in the report, “The Committee therefore recommends that the state government should carry out basin wide Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) for all the river basins of the state and till these are finalised no more hydel projects should be allotted or, where allotted, their clearances should be withheld.” The numerous recommendations in his report were however largely ignored. Is thus the appointment of such committees simply a waste of the public exchequer?

The submersion of the key Cheer pheasant habitat of Majathal concerns wildlife experts. Not just the flooded area but also the impact of the construction work with accompanying noise, debris and machinery could be disastrous for this elusive species and brings forth the fear of local extinction. A senior forest official from that state who wishes to remain anonymous says of Majathal , “ It is an important wildlife habitat. Other than the Cheer pheasant, leopards, jungle cat and goral, we have also recorded vulture nests in the area. It needs to be preserved.”

More calamitous than the destruction of Majathal though is what these repeated infractions mean for India’s wildlife. It is a mockery of the law that despite clear rejections, projects such as the Kol dam continue unabated.  In this case, the project proponent failed to supply the necessary documents like the Bio Diversity Impact report, misinformed the Committee on the number of trees to be destroyed by the Dam and have carried out and almost finished construction of the dam without the mandatory clearance required for such a project. 

In the process, multiple laws have been broken. It is also worth noting that members of the Standing Committee have repeatedly requested that Agenda items once rejected by the Standing Committee should not be brought back for discussion and clearance unless there is a court order to the contrary or anything new and significant in the proposal. Yet, the same proposals, this being a case in point, are brought forth again and again. 

Bittu Sahgal, the editor of Sanctuary Asia, India’s leading wildlife magazine, says, “The Prime Minister’s Office has begun to play a very dubious role by leveraging its considerable power to browbeat those asking for environmental laws to be upheld. Environmental conditions agreed upon by the PMO for the Lower Subansiri Dam were later ignored. Now the Kol Dam project, which has been comprehensively and repeatedly rejected by the committee is sought to be revived. Large egos are involved. Large financial stakes are involved for the proponents. 

But the highest stakes involved are those of survival, not only of the Cheer Pheasants, but of the people of the subcontinent whose leaders want to build dams in the Himalayas based on outdated glacier and river flow data that makes a shambles of any cost-benefit claims that the NHPC so routinely trots out to justify financially and ecologically ruinous projects.”

If the Kol dam project is allowed to be completed with no consequences for the numerous wildlife violations, it will be an indicting statement on the sanctity of India’s wildlife laws.

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