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.


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.

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.

Along with the evident derogation of existing environmental legislation, wider changes in environmental law and governance are in the offing. A High Level Committee (HLC), chaired by former cabinet secretary, T. S. R. Subramanian, was set up by the government to suggest amendments in the environmental laws of the country last year. In the course of just three months, six laws were considered. The HLC turned in its report suggesting a new Environmental Management Law. It also suggested that environmental and forest clearances be made easier and under the same window, which has been a long-standing industry demand. While the report recommends cracking down on wildlife poaching, it simultaneously suggests changing impact assessment processes, which will make clearances to divert wildlife habitat easier.

The report, which has verbally been accepted by the government, also moots that Environmental Impact Assessments (EIAs) should only have one site visit, suggesting that more than one site visit will inconvenience the project developer. In what has been widely criticised as being overtly pro-industry, the report also suggests “utmost good faith” in project developers, both towards declaring their environmental impacts, as well as environmental compliance.

Conservationists have pointed out that there are no post-monitoring structures in place. The scanner was recently turned squarely on medium to highly polluting industries by the National Green Tribunal, which banned polluting tanneries on the Ganga. The Court maintained that the river was being destroyed by the heavy amount of effluent from tanneries and leather units along the banks of the river. Despite the “polluter pays principle”, a generally poor compliance of corporates cleaning up their own mess has led many to believe there is no faith to be invested in “good faith” and such a system will only exacerbate environmental degradation.

Another suggestion which finds support in the ministry is to combine environmental, wildlife, and forest clearance into one window. Environmental clearances deal largely with pollution, while forest clearances deal with impacts of, and need for, diversion or destruction of forest land. Loss of forest or wilderness areas signifies danger for endangered species and fragments habitats, which needs ecosystem- and site- specific attention. All these involve different kinds of analyses and have different impacts.

There is a need to look at cumulative environmental and social impacts of projects in a landscape, which may be executed by multiple agencies. While these impacts are not the same, clubbing them seems to signify a move towards making the process of clearance faster.

The idea mooted by the committee to not have more than one site visit for impact studies, while creating speed, also flies in the face of several well-known EIA practices world over, which follow seasonal EIAs. Biodiversity sites look different during different seasons (following considerations like rainfall, phenology, and animal migration) but these ecological concerns may not get due attention, if these proposals become law.

After all, who are our environmental laws for? Surely, they are for people, to create a safe environment for humans, for public health, to conserve and protect nature for citizens now and into the future, as enshrined in India’s Constitution. But the laws are also intended in part for wild animals, who share our landscapes and enrich our lives, and who continue to surprise us with their mobility and specific needs.

In early 2015, a radio-collared male Wreathed Hornbill in Arunachal Pradesh surprised biologists by flying 13 kilometres every day in the first few days of tracking. Documenting the long distances covered by the nomadic bird and unearthing reasons for his movement, such as to access distant feeding or roost sites, were both a source of wonder. Whooshing through the sky, the hornbill crossed administrative boundaries to visit fruiting trees in distant forest patches, in a bid to gather food for his mate. The female hornbill, confined in a great tree hollow during the nesting period, remains incubating her egg for over three months.

During this period, the male hornbill’s need for extensive forests is matched by the trees’ dependence on hornbills to consume its fruit and disperse seeds and regenerate forests across the landscape. But soon, the existing wide landscape of trackless, misty forests in Arunachal Pradesh could be sliced by a long road; and broken and drowned by about 125 large dams on the cards, some of which are already under construction.

Like animals that move over vast distances from protected reserves through surrounding areas, ecological processes and environmental impacts, too, can transcend boundaries and travel over large landscapes. In Karnataka, iron ore mines in the vicinity of Kudremukh National Park caused heavy pollution of the Bhadra river, siltation of Bhadra reservoir, and contamination of soil in agricultural lands miles downstream. Along the Simsang and other rivers in Meghalaya, acid mine drainage and river pollution has resulted in beguiling blue waters devoid of fish. Along the east coast, the construction of artificial seawalls in the vicinity of ports and harbours has caused serious coastal erosion, loss of beaches, and fish landing sites for kilometres by altering the dynamics of coastal sand drift.

Smaller hydro-electric projects in Karnataka are fragmenting forests and the loss of habitat and disruption of movement routes appears to be exacerbating human-wildlife conflicts with species like elephants in the wider landscape.

Conservation scientists who have studied species like elephants and leopards in India suggest perceptions often overcome reality in many of these so-called “human-wildlife conflicts”. If anything, the incidents indicate human-wildlife interactions gone awry, in a scenario of decline in traditional tolerance of local people for wildlife due to inappropriate management measures and government apathy. Field research suggests that such negative interactions between people and wildlife are not because of problem animals as much as they are because of problem locations and other human-human conflicts. Scientists have recommended paying greater attention to incident locations and wildlife corridors, addressing human welfare concerns, and implementing pro-active prevention measures, rather than resorting to reactive solutions such as creation of more barriers, capture, translocation, and culling of animals.

Unfortunately, the central government appears to overlook this growing scientific understanding and evidence of feasibility of human-wildlife coexistence. Instead, the central ministry recently asked the states to propose lists of species that can be declared as “vermin” under Schedule V of the Wildlife Protection Act to permit legal killing of notified species in the name of conservation and conflict mitigation. This purely reactive approach is unlikely to provide a lasting solution.

Across India, the conservation predicament today is that the landscape of conservation needed to sustain species, ecological processes, and rural livelihoods, must extend beyond the boundaries of protected reserves into countryside and city. Neither ecological process nor human agency, be it dispersing tiger or extractive industry, can be entirely curtailed within the hard boundaries we draw on a map. Instead of sharp lines that form hard edges, more permeable buffers and ecologically-sensitive, transition zones need to be created and supported.

And yet, it is the paradoxical policy and practice of shrinking the domain of protection and attempting to further separate people from the rest of nature that is gaining ground. Hanging in the balance is the future of India’s nature reserves, rural landscapes and livelihoods, and wild India itself.

What will the future conservation landscape look like, if all the relaxations, notifications, and legal amendments on the government’s wish list come to pass?

First, wild animals cannot be strictly curtailed by borders, trenches, boundaries, or psychological limits imposed by people; and thus, increased direct interface of animals and people will be a likely outcome. Industrial projects will likely have more direct impacts, including pollution, on wild habitats, while negative human-wildlife interactions such as crop damage and other conflict incidence could increase. With no pro-active coexistence measures in place and stripped of earlier legal protections, animals moving through human-dominated landscapes will increasingly be snared, poisoned, and shot.

Second, habitats are likely to become increasingly fragmented and affected by intrusions such as from linear projects. Across India, animals as big as elephants and deer are falling into mining pits or drowning in irrigation canals, while animals as fast as tigers and antelope are getting crushed on National Highways. Bigger roads, wider lanes and more linear intrusions will mean higher mortality, reduced dispersal, and also less breeding success. With more project incursions, the integrity of eco-sensitive areas, or buffers, is being eroded around wild spaces. While populations of sensitive wildlife species inside a park may remain stagnant, go into a tailspin, or become genetically isolated, the parks may well become “ecological ghettoes” wherein the animal loses its future if it steps out of a hard boundary.

Finally, as projects are fast-tracked for one blinkered vision of growth, and spaces for conservation and sustainable development shrink, the challenges of scientific assessment of risks and mitigation are likely to grow. A recent study mapping proposed thermal and port projects on the Indian coastline has shown that nearly every few kilometres is likely to be covered in a project or impacted by a project. Are coastlines the best places to build infrastructure given increased storm surges? How will ecosystems and livelihoods of coastal people be impacted by such heavy construction activity? What kind of policy and mitigation measures need to be developed and enforced? There are no easy answers, but it is at least clear that such levels of intervention should not be done without evidence-based and cumulative assessments, which may not be available from individual projects permitted on the basis of “utmost good faith” alone.

India’s environmental governance needs a turnaround. It needs a vision that is not focused narrowly on project clearances, but takes wider landscapes and a longer term into consideration. To extend conservation beyond wildlife reserves also requires pro-active interventions to foster coexistence between people and wildlife. Integral to this will be the conservation and management of natural areas and countryside habitats surrounding wildlife reserves, including crucial corridors used by wildlife such as tigers and elephants.

In the long haul, neither natural ecosystems nor economic growth can be safeguarded without a better system for post-project monitoring and transparent reporting. Rigorous science and assessment data are essential not just for granting clearances but also for continuous monitoring, avoiding and rectifying impacts. Mitigation procedures should be the rule rather than the unmonitored exception. To bring accountability to industry, good practice will be a superior option to good faith, while credible and independent assessment and monitoring will help avoid problems and stave off recourse to punitive measures and litigation.

All this can come about only with a wide-angled view of environment  and wildlife not just as a hindrance to double-digit growth dreams, but as an integral factor at all stages from policy and planning through design, implementation, and monitoring. Constraining animals as mighty as tigers and elephants to inadequate spaces in fragmented landscapes, or expecting them to evolve quickly to cope with roads and railways, are unrealistic solutions. Evolving policy and practice keeping conservation in mind addresses a critical need and defines a more realistic way forward.

(Neha Sinha is a conservationist with the Bombay Natural History Society. She is an INLAKS scholar and commentator on environmental issues. She can be contacted at [email protected].)

(T R Shankar Raman is a wildlife scientist with the Nature Conservation Foundation working in the Anamalai Hills. He writes non-fiction essays and articles on nature and conservation and blogs on the Coyotes Network []. He can be contacted at [email protected].)