The Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change (MoEF&CC) has formed a committee to inspect and evaluate a broad gauge railway line project proposed through tiger areas in the Western Ghats of Karnataka, but without any tiger expert.
The activists claim that there are no records in public domain for the Standing Committee meeting of the NBWL dated May 30 that had deliberated upon the proposal for the HARP, following which the decision to form a committee was formed.
As per an official memorandum (O.M.), the National Board for Wildlife (NBWL) decided to constitute a committee to examine the proposal and framed the Terms of Reference (ToR) of the proposed Committee, which will examine the Hubli-Ankola railway line Project (HARP) proposed through an important tiger corridor of the Western Ghats, recognised as the world's eighth hottest biodiversity hotspot.
This development came in response to an ongoing hearing in the Karnataka High Court at Bengaluru wherein PILs have been filed against this proposed alignment.
Prompted by the lack of transparency, a bunch of activists, including two former Principal Chief Conservators of Forest (PCCF) from Karnataka have drawn attention to the absence of a member from the National Tiger Conservation Authority (NTCA) from this committee.
Dashing off a letter to the Deputy Inspector General of Forest (Wildlife) in the Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change (MoEF&CC), they said: "As per section 38 (O) (1) (g) of the Wildlife (Protection) Act, 1972, the NTCA is a 'necessary party' to any issue concerning the Tiger reserves and areas linking one protected area or tiger reserve with another protected area or tiger reserve.
The HARP is proposed in the buffer region of Anshi-Dandeli Tiger Reserve and the project is proposed in the intervening area between Kali and Bhadra Tiger Reserves. In fact, the NTCA has submitted a site appraisal report in December 2017 on diversion of 595.64 Ha of forest land in Karwar, Yellapur and Dharwad division for the construction of new broad-gauge line of Hubli-Ankola.
Members of Panel
The O.M. issued by the MoEF&CC regarding the formation of the Committee and its ToR shows that there are seven members - Additional Director General of Forest (Forest Conservation) MoEF&CC, H S Singh and R Sukumar, both members of the Standing Committee of the NBWL, representatives of Director, Indian Institute of Technology, Dharwad; Director, Wildlife Institute of India (WII), Dehradun, and Director, Indian Council for Forestry Research and Education (IFCRE), Dehradun and Deputy Inspector General of Forest (Wildlife) from the Environment Ministry as the Member Convenor.
The report after site inspection, meeting with public representatives, studying the various reports by different boards etc, is expected to be submitted within two and a half months.
What experts say
"It is alarming to note that the lack of representation / membership from the Specialised Statutory body namely the NTCA in this specialised committee formed pursuant to a High Court order to critically evaluate HARP," activists advocate Sreeja Chakraborty, Rajani Rao Santosh and Sandhya Balasubramanian, all three of them Directors at the Living Earth Foundation India (LEAF), a think-tank based in Bengaluru, wrote in the letter on Saturday, which is additionally endorsed by six people, including two retired PCCFs of Karnataka.
The activists have demanded to nominate and include at least one representative from the NTCA in the committee and also requested time for personally accompanying the committee during its visit to the project affected area.
The Karnataka High Court is hearing PILs filed by Bengaluru based Project Vruksha Foundation and others expressing contentions regarding the viability of the project and its impact on environment and the wildlife. The High Court had now granted 10 weeks' time to the NBWL to submit its decision regarding the project to the court.