According to news reports, three mining and hydel projects have been given approval earlier this year, by the Forest Advisory Committee (FAC) of the environment ministry of the central government, in areas in the vicinity of wildlife zones, including a tiger and an elephant habitat. This has greatly agitated activists working for conservation of wildlife and the people living in those areas.
The normal practice until now has been that the standing committee of the national board for wildlife headed by the environment minister approves projects in and around wildlife areas. However, for the first time, the FAC did not refer these projects to it for consent. According to an official of the environment ministry, “a rule change last year gave FAC power to approve projects outside the wildlife areas” by charging wildlife management fee.
According to the changed rules, the FAC can allow a company to acquire forest land hitherto dedicated for wildlife management, without the approval of the panel of wildlife experts, provided the company pays wildlife management fee of Rs. 43,000 per hectare for this forest land. This is in addition to a higher fee — based on value and forest density — they have to pay for cutting trees.
The amendment was part of the “green reform” undertaken by former environment minister Prakash Javadekar to speed up “green approvals”, as part of the present NDA government’s attempt to improve its ranking in “ease of doing business”, for the Indian and foreign capitalists.
In August 2016, the FAC allowed Tata Steel and other companies to carry out mining projects in Odisha’s Sukinda mineral zone that cuts through a corridor used by endangered species such as elephants, pangolin and sloth bear.
Another approval for a mining project was given to Tata Steel close to an elephant habitat in Keonjhar district of Odisha, in March 2016. The approval was given despite objections by local wildlife activists.
The third was the approval given to Jaiprakash Power Ventures Limited (JPVL) for setting up a 252 MW hydel project in the ecologically sensitive Chamoli district of Uttarakhand in February 2016. The environment ministry’s regional office in Lucknow pointed out that the region has rare animals like Himalayan Tahar, black bear, snow leopard and musk deer but the FAC approved the project after imposing the levy.
While scientists and activists working for wildlife conservation have repeatedly pointed out that high-intensity projects such as mining and hydel power disturb and endanger wildlife, these concerns have been ignored. Instead, the amendment to the rules has been justified by the spokespersons of the government, in the name of “speeding up” the rate of approval of the projects in the interests of the capitalist companies and giving an incentive to wildlife conservation by forest departments which face severe shortage of funds provided by the state, through the money generated by the wildlife management fee.
The Indian state is not only abdicating its responsibility of preserving and nurturing our rich natural resources, including our wildlife reserves. Clearly, the Indian state is going all out to further the interests of maximising profits of the Indian and foreign monopoly capitalists, at the expense of the invaluable resources of our people.