An open Letter to Honorable Prime Minister

Shankar Sharma

Dear Honorable Prime Minister,

Greetings from Sagar, Western Ghats, Karnataka.

It is learnt from a Twitter message of Sri. Prakash Javadekar that the National Board for Wild Life (NBWL) has approved wildlife clearance on 7 April 2020 for a 2,000 MW pumped storage hydel power plant in Sharavathy Valley Lion-Tailed Macaque Sanctuary in Karnataka.  Whereas this twitter message seems to take pride in approving 11 project proposals in a single session of the NBWL and also in approving “a unique project which will bridge the gap in the electricity supply”, a detailed communication of 12th Oct. 2019 addressed to Chairperson & Members of NBWL had highlighted that this project proposal can be disastrous to the core area of a rare wildlife sanctuary in many ways within the Western Ghats, in addition to ultimately destroying about 360 acres of pristine forest of very high ecological value in a Wild Life sanctuary.   It was also clearly explained that the project will not lead to bridge annual electricity supply gap, but instead will consume about 25% more electrical energy than it can produce.  This representation also had listed very many issues of serious concern from the perspective of the critically important ecology of not only the Western Ghats in Karnataka, but to the country, and to the planetary health as a whole.  It is highly deplorable that NBWL also seems to have failed to objectively consider very many techno-economically credible alternatives to achieve the objective of the proposal.

When we also consider the fact that the Karnataka state Wild Life Board and/or the NBWL: (i) had no objection to divert 54 hectares of very high quality tropical rain forests in the core area of Western Ghats in Karnataka in the ESZ of Anshi National Park to install two more reactors in Kaiga Nuclear Power Project in Karnataka; (ii) supported another application which is pending before the environment ministry for diverting about 177 hectares of thick forest lands, again within the core Western Ghats of Karnataka, to build a power line between Karnataka and Goa; (iii) had no objection to divert 727 hectares of forest land for the Hubballi-Ankola rail line in again in the Western Ghats of Karnataka, a serious question arises whether these authorities, which were set up to specifically protect the wild life and the meager patches of natural forests left in the country, have set out to destroy the Western Ghats, which is clearly against the mandate of Wild Life Protection Act to which their existence can be traced.

There are also media reports of more than 20 linear projects in various stages of planning and implementation within the core Western Ghats of Karnataka, with the definitive prospect of felling about 2 million mature trees.  A diligent analysis of these projects will reveal that most of them are ill-conceived and hence not required, OR there are many benign alternatives to achieve the project objective/s.  

In this context, the another decision to permit open cast coal mining in an area of about 170,000 hectares of dense natural forests in Parsa in Chhattisgarh’s dense Hasdeo Arand forests, is seen as a decision that could have far-reaching consequences for forest cover conservation in India.  Hasdeo Arand is known as one of the largest contiguous stretches of very dense forest in central India. 

It is also reported that Karnataka has lost about 10,000 hectares of forest in the last 3-4 years, whereas for the country as a whole, the loss of primary forest in the last five years was more than 120,000 hectares, which is nearly 36% more than such losses seen between 2009 and 2013. It is also credibly reported in the media that over 500 projects in India’s protected areas (PAs) and eco-sensitive zones were cleared by the NBWL over the first four years of the NDA government between June 2014 and May 2018.

Whereas these and very many associated concerns are being brought to the notice of the concerned authorities such as MoEF&CC, NBWL, CMs and PMO on a regular basis, these authorities seem to totally ignore such concerns from the civil society groups and domain experts in almost all cases.  In this context, it will be no surprise if people in our country think that many of our political leaders, forest department officials, and bureaucrats of this country will not rest until every sq. kM of the forests in the country are destroyed.  Such people can be easily be forgiven, because the recent developments in the state/country may indicate such a scenario to them.

All these facts/policy decisions are clear indication of the low priority being given by the present NDA led govt. for the preservation of our natural resources. The fact that 11 projects were cleared by NBWL in one sitting is a clear indication of the lack of due diligence in according approval to divert forest lands even in protected areas (PAs) .  It seems obvious that enormous consequences of such wanton destruction of the natural habitats of the wildlife were either not recognized by the MoEF&CC, or they were conveniently ignored to benefits few vested interests.

It is also a very serious concern that there has been no opportunity for the concerned CSOs or individuals or domain experts to make effective presentations in the proceedings of NBWL or state wild life boards to show how the destruction of such wildlife habitats can be minimized or completely avoided through better management practices or through alternative project proposals.  I am confident that in all such power project proposals involving diversion of forest lands in Protected Areas, one can prove that there are multiple benign options to achieve the same objective without destroying the wildlife habitats.  Being a power sector professional since about 40 years, I can provide adequate clarifications on each of such ill-conceived power project proposals. Are our ministers and bureaucrats rational enough to diligently consider the views of the concerned civil society groups and domain experts?

Since the past few years, many concerned individuals and wildlife experts, such as a former PCCF of the forest department, a former member of the NBWL, a former member of state wildlife board, few wildlife conservationists of national and international repute, a former MoEF&CC, Scientists from IISc, and many wildlife activists have been highlighting their serious concerns over the continuing destruction of natural forests and biodiversity in the country and their unimaginable consequences, including the health issues, to our communities.  It should be a serious matter that our authorities are continuing to ignore such credible warnings.

At a time when the whole world is struggling to contain the havoc created by the Corona Pandemic, and when very many credible science based institutions are cautioning the global community of the potential for increased devastation from a family of viruses such as corona, due to the continued destruction of wildlife habitats, it is highly deplorable that NBWL has completely ignored the potential disaster to our country from such ill-conceived projects in thick natural forests.

A number of reports/research publications have unambiguously linked the wildlife habitats, ecology and human health.  An UNEP report of 2016 (“Emerging Issues of Environmental Concern”) had said: Expanding populations and worsening climate-change impacts are putting greater pressure on the land, with deforestation, urbanisation, intensifying agriculture, and resource extraction providing more opportunities for pathogens to spill over from animals to people.  Doreen Robinson, chief of wildlife at the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) was reported to have said: "Human health is connected to animal health, but also to the health of forests.  Diseases passed from animals to humans are on the rise, as the world continues to see unprecedented destruction of wild habitats by human activity. Diseases passed from animals to humans are on the rise, as the world continues to see unprecedented destruction of wild habitats by human activity. Humans and nature are part of one connected system, and we need to understand how it works so that we don't push things too far and face the increasingly negative consequences".

Christine Johnson, from the University of California's School of Veterinary Medicine, lead author of a latest research report says: "Our data highlight how exploitation of wildlife and destruction of natural habitat in particular, underlie disease spillover events, putting us at risk for emerging infectious diseases,"; "We alter the landscape through deforestation, conversion of land for growing crops or raising livestock, or building up communities," . "This also increases the frequency and intensity of contact between humans and wildlife -- creating the perfect conditions for virus spillover." 

A recent article with the title “Corona virus is linked to nature and its degradation” has said: “For decades the question asked was what would be the economic costs if the environment was given more importance over development. The COVID-19 pandemic gives the world an opportunity to think about what is the economic cost if we only talked about development and did not take the environment into consideration.   So was it with the land. Forested lands were fragmented for highways and railway lines. While mines ate forests from the insides, tourism infrastructure ate from the edges. More land at the edge of the forests was converted for agriculture. Large institutions with their elephant trenches and electric fences obstructed the path of the pachyderm herds. With increasing human-wildlife interaction there are more chances of zoonotic diseases transmitting from animals to humans. "  

If these revealing facts are of no consequence to our concerned authorities, the fact that the forest & tree cover at the national level is only about 24% of the land area against the national forest policy target of 33% should be driven home for them for the sake of all-round welfare of our communities.

Few other articles/reports in this regard are as below:
'Tip of the iceberg': is our destruction of nature responsible for Covid-19?

Asia's rapid urbanisation, deforestation linked to deadly viruses  

Carbon Sequestration Potential of the Forest Ecosystems in the Western Ghats, a Global Biodiversity Hotspot 

The projected timing of abrupt ecological disruption from climate change

The ongoing work of the Standing Committee of the Parliament on Science &Technology, Environment, Forests & Climate Change on a report “Environment, Climate Change and Public Health” can be expected to make some direct reference to such deplorable functioning of the regulatory authorities, including EAC.  Suitable and urgent action by PMO to negate/ minimize the damage done by these regulatory authorities to the trust of the people may soften the tone of such observations by this standing Committee.   Such diligent actions are urgently required before the people of the country lose confidence in these regulatory authorities.

Keeping all these facts in proper perspective, it will not be irrational to ask whether various wildlife boards, both at the centre and states, and the EAC have become irrelevant since they are seen as abdicating their Constitutional mandate to protect the wildlife and the associated biodiversity.

In this context, may I request you to consider the following steps?

(1) Issue suitable instructions to cancel all the above-mentioned clearances and others since last few years to divert the forest lands in the protected areas (PA) and other eco-sensitive areas with immediate effect?

(2) Keeping in view the ineffectiveness, and many of the disastrous decisions taken by the NBWL in recent years: (i)dissolve both the NBWL and various state wild life boards, as well as EAC; (ii) reconstitute them with at least 75% of the members having suitable qualifications and concerns on wildlife and ecology; (iii) mandate the submission of their concerns/ recommendations by at least three representatives from the concerned NGOs and individuals in those meetings of the Board while discussing each of such project proposals.

(3) Mandate such regulatory bodies to work with the specific objectives such as to minimize the number of project approvals asking for diversion of the forest lands until atleast the forest & tree cover in the country reaches 33% of the land area, and not to permit any forest land diversion in the Protected Areas (PAs) such as National Parks, Wild Life sanctuaries, and other core areas of very high ecological sensitivity.

With kind regards

Shankar Sharma

11 April 2020

Shankar Sharma, Power Policy Analyst, Anugraha, 5th Cross, 80 ft Road, Vijayanagar 1st stage, SagaraKarnataka - 577 401

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Apr 28, 2020

Shankar Sharma

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