The recent utterances of Telangana Chief Minister K Chandrashekar Rao about denotifying sanctuaries if needed for development are worrisome for more reasons than one. It is understandable that development projects are needed but there should be a fine balance between sustaining nature and development projects.
The Chief Minister blamed IFS officers for being negligent and interfering in government schemes by informing the Green Tribunal and Central government that construction of Kaleshwaram is in forest land and it would affect the Crocodile Park in that area. The Chief Minister is reported to have said that that crocodiles live in water in any case and what the harm was if the sanctuary got submerged.
However, the Mugger crocodile is ecothermic (cold blooded) reptilian predator and has a slow metabolism. They are territorial in nature, hence needing several open sandbanks which are available only when water is below the land level. They lay eggs in sandbanks of rivers and hence the entire habitat is needed for its survival. If this gets inundated, crocodiles cannot survive.
The Wildlife Protection Act under Section 29 disallows any act to divert, stop or enhance flow of water into or outside a sanctuary. Any such decisions need to be taken only to benefit the habitat. In this context, if the Green Tribunal or the apex court is asking the government to follow established norms and guidelines, it is not fair on the part of Chief Minister KCR to question integrity of forest officers. Based on the facts and rule position, the National Green Tribunal is staying Kaleshwaram project and not due to some wishful thinking.
Telangana is the leading state in the country in terms of forest diversions for development projects, while following guidelines and proposing a proper mitigation plan. This has been possible only with the cooperation of forest department and importantly clearances are being achieved in record time.
The Union Minister of Forests Dr Harsha Vardhan has heaped praises on Telangana government as 26% of the country’s plantations are happening in Telangana – a 7-fold more numbers of saplings planted and 5-fold more area covered under afforestation. Almost the entire department is giving more than 100 per cent under the leadership of Head of Forest Force PK Jha to ensure that the CMs dream of Telanganaku Haritha Haram (THH) is realised, despite massive targets set for the plantation exercise – 230 crore saplings in 4 years.
The CM also mentioned recently that there were no tigers in Srisaillam, and wondered why Srisailam Left Bank Canal (SLBC) should be stopped. The truth is that there are close to 70 tigers in Srisaillam (including Amrabad Tiger Reserve). The Srisaillam Tiger Reserve is India’s largest tiger reserve, one of the largest tracts of dry deciduous forests in Asia. Importantly, it is a major catchment of river Krishna. Denotifying could have far-reaching implications that are unimaginable.
There were concerns raised over action taken on Gutti Koyas in Jayshankar Bhulapalli district. In fact, Wildlife Protection Act, 1972 authorises Forest officer of rank of Assistant Conservator and above can remove the encroachments. Indian Forest Act, AP Forest Act, Forest Conservation Act and several Supreme Court Orders such as order of 23.11.2001 in IA No.703 in WP No.202/95, MoEF directions and several High Court orders clearly direct that illegal encroachment has to be removed in a time-bound manner.
Moreover, a survey suggested that Gutti Koyas or Muria gonds are primarily coming to Telangana as politicians and NGOs are supporting their encroachments – few affluent settler farmers from Guntur also abet encroachments and later these lands are cultivated by non-tribals. The CM must have forgotten that it was he who said in January 2015 that Gutti Koyas would be removed from forests as they were encroachers.
The manner in which this was done may be debatable but the authority of local forest officers attempting removal of encroachment is unquestionable and this is a classic example of action taken in good faith. Finally, denotification of sanctuaries is not in the purview of State government, rather Forest and Wildlife are on the Concurrent List and needs the approval of Central Government.
Wildlife sanctuaries are sacrosanct and need several permissions with proper reasoning from the State Board of Wildlife, The National Board of Wildlife, Centrally Empowered Committee, Forest Advisory Committee, Ministry of Environment and Forests, and most importantly a separate permission from Hon’ble Supreme Court.
In any case, development projects could be no justification for denotification of Protected Areas. It would rather be productive to look for solutions within limits of law of the land rather creating more hurdles for development and finally causing more delay. Protected areas are actually engines of economic growth of Telangana. A recent study of Indian Institute of Forest Management suggests that every square kilometer of protected area yields Rs 80 crore of flow benefits (eg water provisioning, nutrient cycling oxygen, pollination, soil conservation and carbon sequestration).
Telangana has 5% of its area under Protected Areas hence the benefits could run in thousands of crores. The need of the hour is sustainable development. Bhutan for instance is a fine example that has developmental projects go hand-in-hand with maintaining ecological balance. Denotifying sanctuaries is no answer, it never was and never will be. (Writer is a wildlife biologist).