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Diversion of natural habitat for projects cannot become a fairly routine event. Consequences are enormous

As statistics go, this one is wild. TOI reports that in 2020, the standing committee of the National Board for Wildlife (NBWL) approved the diversion of as much as 1,792 hectares of wildlife habitat. The data is from a study carried out by the non-profit organisation Legal Initiative for Forest and Environment (LIFE). It raises several questions, of which the most interesting is this: How can so much wildlife habitat area be given over to project work in a year when site visits, considered absolutely critical for such clearances, were severely restricted?

Most of the diversion is for linear projects such as roads, railways and transmission lines. These cause direct loss of habitat and also reduce the landscape’s capacity to sustain wildlife. For example, multiple diversions approved within Bhagwan Mahaveer Wildlife Sanctuary and Mollem National Park will impact several species such as tiger, panther, bison, sloth bear, barking deer and wild dog in eco-sensitive Western Ghats. The LIFE study also finds that in some cases diversions were approved without indicating the specific area. And only one project has been rejected in the past three years.

All of this seems to point to at best extreme laxity on the part of NBWL, which should really err on the side of caution when it comes to project clearances. At around 4.9% of India’s geographical expanse, its protected areas – including national parks and wildlife sanctuaries – are anyway seriously short of the globally recognised Aichi Biodiversity Target of 17%. And let’s remember, Indian PAs’ effectiveness in preventing forest loss has been poor as compared to countries like Mexico and Thailand. Plus, even the small proportion that’s protected has taken decades to secure. On such a narrow base, NBWL’s seemingly cavalier attitude can have a disproportionately large impact.

The issue, of course, is not wildlife vs roads, trains and electricity. India needs plenty more of the latter. But it needn’t come at a steep cost to natural habitats. Alternative, less disruptive routes for these projects can be found. GoI must tell NBWL to work on that basis.



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This piece appeared as an editorial opinion in the print edition of The Times of India.



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