Railway projects, small-scale development works involving construction over less than 20,000 square metres, and under-25 MW capacity hydropower plants will not require approval from the National Board for Wildlife (NBWL) even if they are located within eco-sensitive zones (ESZs) of national parks or wildlife sanctuaries, the environment ministry has said.
ESZs of 10 km radius were meant to be “shock absorbers” and transition zones from areas of high to low protection for wildlife and biodiversity, as per the ministry’s 2011 guidelines on declaring such zones. The 2002 Wildlife Conservation Strategy also recommends a 10 km buffer around sanctuaries. The Supreme Court in December 2006 directed all states and Union territories to follow the strategy while hearing a plea over a delay in declaring ESZs.
In letters dated July 24 and July 16 to chief secretaries of states and Union territories, the ministry said NBWL’s nod will be needed only for projects that require prior environment clearance or are located in areas linking one protected area to another.
The ministry has accordingly changed the wording of the Handbook of Forest Conservation Act, 1980, which said: “Prior recommendation of standing committee of NBWL under the provisions of Wildlife (Protection) Act, 1972, is also required for taking developmental activities in/over an area falling within eco sensitive zones. ” It now reads: “Prior recommendation of Standing Committee of NBWL under the provisions of Wildlife (Protection) Act, 1972 shall be obtained, if required, for taking developmental activities in/over an area falling within eco sensitive zones.”
The July 16 letter clarifies that proposals related to projects within a notified ESZ and those that require prior environment clearance will also require NBWL’s nod. It adds those that do not have a notified ESZ will require an NBWL nod only if the proposal requires prior environment clearance and is located within a 10 km radius of a protected area. Proposals for projects to be located in a corridor connecting one protected area to another will also require NBWL’s approval.
Rest of the projects are exempt from NBWL’s consent. “State governments are requested not to insist upon wildlife clearance for such development projects outside protected areas that are not covered under para 3 [conditions listed above],” the July 16 letter said. HT has seen a copy of the letter.
HT on August 17 last year reported that the ministry had published an office memorandum saying projects outside the boundary of a notified ESZ of a sanctuary or national park but within its 10 km radius will not need prior clearance from NBWL.
Such proposals will get environmental clearance from the ministry’s expert appraisal committee, which will also ensure “appropriate conservation measures in the form of recommendations.” The memorandum nullified previous office memoranda of February 2007 and December 2009, which made NBWL’s approval mandatory for projects within a park’s 10 km radius.
The ministry’s clarifications go a step further and say smaller projects, which do not fall under the purview of Environment Impact Assessment Notification, 2006, do not need to seek wildlife clearance no matter where they are located in buffer zones. Inland waterways and railways are also exempt from prior environmental clearance and hence will also be exempt from NBWL’s approval even if they fall in ESZs of protected areas.
“Only projects that are eligible for prior EC [environmental clearance] will also need a wildlife clearance if they are located in the notified ESZ of a protected area or within a 10 km radius where ESZ is not notified,” said environment ministry secretary R P Gupta.
Kanchi Kohli, a legal researcher at New Delhi’s Centre for Policy Research, said the clarifications read down the importance of ecologically sensitive areas by introducing phrases like “if necessary” when it comes to scrutiny. She cited social conflicts related to ESZ creation.
“However one cannot rule out their importance as buffers or corridors that help protect biodiverse habitats. This is important more than ever before to mitigate climate change and prevent ecologically destructive regulatory decisions.”