World Environment Day

First published in Sanctuary Asia, Vol. 36 No. 6, June 2016

By Bittu Sahgal and Lakshmy Raman

On June 5, 2015, Prime Minister of India, Narendra Modi, planted a sapling at his residence at 7, Race Course Road, New Delhi. June 5, 2016, will no doubt see more photo-ops, more calls to action, more celebrities planting trees. All understandable. The same time last year, Environment Minister Prakash Javadekar said, “Many of the Earth’s ecosystems are nearing tipping points of depletion, or irreversible change.” He was right. But since then, very little the government has done has been right. Worse, in the wholly mistaken belief that India must get rich to feed and clothe its people and then look to improve our ecological circumstances, our government is purposefully pushing us quicker towards the tipping point, from which there may well be no return for the 1.3 billion people of the Indian subcontinent. 

It is this ‘get rich fast, then repair the ecological damage done later’ that spurs the Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change (MoEFCC) to grant environmental clearances without sufficient due diligence. Of course only the advice of those who endorse the eco-lethal plans that take a toll of forests, lakes, wetlands, coasts, corals, islands and even deserts is ever placed on record. 

The list of ecological misdemeanors is by now legend, with even the business press alarmed at the cavalier way in which India’s natural health is being sacrificed. What follows is a smattering of examples, which should be treated as a mere indication of the deeper malaise that has percolated down to virtually every state, city, municipality and even gram sabha. Tragically, in this era of climate change, raiding the ‘commons’ has become the norm.

River linking

It’s a hypnotic idea. An intuitive one. Where water is scarce, why not transport it from an area where water is in plenty?

But there is a glitch. Transporting water cannot be done without creating reservoirs and canals. India has an astounding number of both, virtually all underperforming. Virtually all unable to perform the impossible task of achieving the contradictory ambitions of irrigation, power generation and flood control. Worse, drowning forests kills water sources and sends carbon into the atmosphere, thus aggravating the water security problem.
The river linking idea was first mooted by Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee in 2008, and is being pushed by our current government despite a retinue of experts stating unambiguously that engineering interventions seeking to shift water from the Brahmaputra and lower Ganges basin to water-scarce regions in western and central India through the construction of reservoirs, dams and canals is quite literally a pipe-dream.

Changing the natural flow of rivers will inevitably cause water-logging in areas that never previously faced any such issues. Reservoirs will inevitably silt up. Fish breeding grounds will die. Downstream impacts including daily flooding in, say, Kaziranga and other such riverine areas is a given. This will make it impossible for all manner of wildlife to adapt. 

Let’s take the case of the Ken-Betwa river linking project. Estimated to cost Rs. 10,000-crores, it aims to link the Ken river in Madhya Pradesh to the Betwa river in Uttar Pradesh. Officially, it will require the diversion of 5,258 ha. of forest land including 4,141 ha. of the Panna Tiger Reserve. The idea is to channel the Ken river westwards, against its natural flow.

To begin with, the forest destruction will be far greater than the submergence. Besides, the project will probably destroy more than just the tiger, highly endangered vultures, for instance. Vultures nest on cliff ledges and tall trees. With blasting and digging and tree felling, both are likely to be damaged. A barrage near the gharial sanctuary will not just harm plans to repopulate the river’s crocodilians, but also impact aquatic fauna including the mahseer fish and mugger. The damage to riverine ground nesting birds and other aquatic fauna will never ever be fully documented, leave alone understood. The Honorable Minister for Environment and Forest, Prakash Javadekar has already cleared Phase-I of the Ken-Betwa river linking project. The fait accompli is sought to be justified on the grounds that the irrigation project will “help the drought-affected areas of Bundelkhand”. Even a cursory examination of ground realities confirms that this miracle is well-nigh impossible.

The National Board for Wildlife (NBWL), now populated by either complicit or over-mild members, has said the damage to Panna will be ‘compensated’. Not a word about the irreparable damage to tiger corridors towards the southwest, or the total blockage by the reservoir itself.  

By some estimates, the larger river linking project will cost more, displace more humans and destroy more forests and other ecological assets than China’s infamous Three Gorges project that is acknowledged to have been a failure almost before it started. 

Options? Well one would be to make existing moribund hydroelectric and water storage projects actually deliver some of the benefits they promised. This might involve improving catchment forests, retro-fitting turbines, dramatically reducing transmission losses, and investing in efficiency up and down the chain from power producers to consumers. 

Equally important would be to absorb the wisdom of generating power in a decentralised way, because it is, after all, consumed in a decentralised way across India in the villages that are used as figleafs behind which large corporations justify mining, damming and otherwise destabilising India’s ecological foundations. Equally effective would be community-based solutions to restore our water security by reviving traditional water structures and encouraging urban rainwater harvesting programmes. Naturally this must be coupled with correcting our cropping patterns to bring them in line with agro-climatic imperatives. Water-intensive crops such as sugarcane in drought-prone areas are not in the national interest. 


India has the third largest coal reserves in the world and roughly 70 per cent of India’s electricity needs are met by coal-fired thermal power. The government’s support for more coal mines continues to be a major threat to our forests, especially in central and eastern India. Earlier governments allotted coal blocks arbitrarily, often illegally, between 1993 and 2008. These allotments were subsequently cancelled by the Supreme Court. 

The current government has changed the licensing procedure from allocations, to auctions, or competitive bidding, and passed the Coal Mines (Special Provisions) Act 2015 allowing private firms to mine and sell coal commercially. Over the last year, several coal blocks have thus been auctioned, bringing in a promise of revenue in future years for coal-rich states. Without applying its mind to its real brief, protecting the environment, the MoEFCC, has issued memo after memo allowing coal mines to expand capacity without further clearances, or even public hearings. Ashish Fernandes, Senior Campaigner, Greenpeace says: “Existing and proposed coal mines threaten tiger corridors in a large swathe of central India, connecting famous reserves such as Tadoba, Kanha, Achanakmar and Bandhavgarh. Elephant habitats in Odisha and Chhattisgarh are being lost to expanding coal mines as well. Renewable energy is now as cheap as coal power; India and the planet are faced with crippling climate change impacts (drought and related forest fires, floods and crop failure) on an unprecedented scale. How can the government continue to justify destroying our last remaining forests for more coal, which will only exacerbate the climate problem?”

Linear Projects and more

Power lines, four-lane highways, canals and railway lines that run through Protected Areas not only cause wildlife roadkills but impede free movement, affect home ranges, isolate wildlife populations and hamper genetic diversity. What, with ribbon development and increased human presence, directly or indirectly, new roads in wilderness areas add to deforestation and ecosystem woes. The Yamuna Expressway Industrial Development Authority has, for instance, earmarked prime wetlands, home to Sarus Cranes, to build homes. The planet’s wetlands not only help mitigate floods and droughts, they also recharge aquifers and store roughly as much carbon as is currently present in our over-loaded atmosphere. 

While laying the foundation stone for the NH-7 four-laning project that passes through the Kanha-Pench corridor (Sanctuary Vol. XXXV No. 6. June 2015), the government proudly proclaimed that their policy to clear all projects involving linear development, including railways, roads, irrigation canals, transmission lines and more, were in the national interest. We beg to differ. There was an alternate alignment for NH7 through Chhindwara, which would have kept the critical Pench-Kanha corridor intact, and Pench-Mansinghdeo and the Navegaon-Nagzira Tiger Reserves safe from harm. 

But they did not choose this.

The Wildlife Institute of India, under pressure, virtually pleaded for a combination of over and underpasses to mitigate the snapped corridors. Their original recommendation involved 10 underpasses, 5.5 km. all together, each seven metres high. The National Highways Authority of India (NHAI) objected. They said the cost was prohibitive, and therefore the number of underpasses was arbitrarily reduced to nine and the length to a wholly inadequate 2.7 km. What is more, conservation biologists were trumped when the height of the passages was reduced to 4.5 m. According to the latest reports, the length has been further reduced to 2.2 km. No scientific explanations were forthcoming.


The Vishnuprayag Hydroelectric Project in Uttarakhand completely failed to meet its extravagant promise of controlling floods on the Alaknanda river. The colossal loss of life and property seems to have taught India no lessons whatsoever. Photo

Hydroelectric Projects

Despite the global and Indian thrust on renewable sources of energy like solar, wind and micro hydro, large scale hydropower continues to enamour our planners. Within just three months of being elected into power, Prime Minister Modi laid foundation stones for the 600 megawatt Kholongchu Hydel Power Project in Bhutan, a nation that prides itself on its forests and biodiversity. Later, he visited Nepal and offered to finance the construction of two transmission lines and a massive 6480 MW Pancheshwar Multipurpose Project on the Mahakali river. 

Back home in Arunachal Pradesh, the construction of the massive 3,000 megawatt Dibang Power Project was approved reversing the earlier official decision not to clear it, ignoring the concerns of forest officials, biodiversity experts, communities, seismic and climate change threats. Local communities are up in arms and are opposing the ruthless destruction of their biodiversity and their very way of life as also exemplified by the continued stoppage of work on the 2000 MW Subansiri Lower HEP for over five years now. In Tawang district, the National Green Tribunal suspended the environmental clearance and an agitated pro-dam lobby conspired to kill the movement against destructive hydropower projects there, leading to the death of two Buddhist Lama activists. As many as 200 large hydropower projects are planned for the Himalaya in Northeast India, in addition to a similar number in northern Indian states of Uttarakhand, Himachal Pradesh and Jammu and Kashmir. The crippling damage caused by the Vishnuprayag dam in Uttarakhand, during the flood disaster of June 2013, seems to have taught the government no lessons. The biodiversity-rich and earthquake-prone Northeast is probably one of the world’s most dangerous zones for hydropower dams, irrespective of the lobbying of drooling contractors and their supportive planners. Not only will killer floods take place as they do with increasing frequency and intensity, the slopes destabilised by deforestation, roads, colonies, quarrying and mining will fill reservoirs with silt. As always, enthusiastic planners turn a blind eye to reality. The Maheshwar dam across the Narmada river in Madhya Pradesh, has been half-built, but there is no money left to rehabilitate the residents of 60 villages displaced by the dam, even as those displaced by the Sardar Sarovar Dam continue to fight in the Courts and outside. Some have already started drifting into city slums. Others are forced to aggravate deforestation of the very slopes that feed water into the dams. 

Hunting Wildlife as ‘Vermin’

India imbibed a bad and grossly faulted habit from the British, who labeled wild dogs, or dholes, as vermin because they competed for the same prey as tigers, which the landed wanted alive so they could kill them instead. 
Today, with rampant human-wildlife conflict raging through the length and breadth of India, the Central Government is encouraging State Governments to declare crop-raiding wild herbivores as ‘vermin’. While these animals do cause crop damage, the fact is that exterminating the natural prey of large carnivores is without question going to aggravate human-animal conflict when the hungry cats turn to livestock, or worse. Turning to self-appointed shikaris, many of whom proudly relive the days of the Raj through images posted on Facebook and Twitter, politicians offer a carte blanche to such hunters, unmindful of scientific advice and common sense. Particularly in buffer areas and corridors that surround forests such as Tadoba, the scale of human-animal conflict is going to rise dramatically as wild ungulate populations are depleted. Predictably, poaching syndicates will collude with hard-pressed locals to poison waterholes, lay snares and pass on information that helps the nefarious networks to flourish. 

What Really Matters

The MoEFCC claims that ‘projects worth thousands of crores with an employment potential of over one million people had been held up ‘against the national interest’. The transparent purpose of the claim, of course, was to quickly clear projects, often economically suicidal projects such as high dams in the Himalaya, without the inconvenience of due diligence. Ignoring hard climate change realities that suggest that the only reliable way to shore up India’s water security is to reforest the subcontinent, unblock natural drainages in rural and urban areas, ordinary people are misled by populist slogans and propaganda designed to grab public lands. This will end up tattering forests, salinising coastal freshwater sources, over-silting dams, lakes, ponds and wells, and poisoning aquifers at the hands of toxic industries and mining. 
The fundamental error that old-school economists and planners make is to believe that natural infrastructures that temper climate, invigorate soils, buffer us from sea surges and, generally, help keep us alive, are no good to their GDP ambitions.

This is why forest protection budgets are abysmally inadequate... why water tables are falling... why floods and droughts have turned more vicious, more frequent... why the rich are getting richer, the poor much, much poorer. A state of affairs that will worsen as the juggernaut of climate change trundles on with our planet already 20 C warmer than it should be.

The real last word? Real truthful reflections for World Environment Day? India’s economy survives because of the stable ecological foundation on which it is built. Allow our leaders to shake this foundation much longer and, like the proverbial house of cards, our economy will come tumbling down.

By Kishor Rithe

Maharashtra’s Melghat Tiger Reserve supports between 40 and 50 tigers, plus another 20 or so in the outlying forests. The politician-contractor nexus used tragic malnutrition deaths that took place outside Melghat to build expensive roads and make demands for dams that we managed to stop in the late 1990s. However, new threats keep popping up like bad pennies whenever someone comes up with a new way to milk taxpayers of money to push through lucrative (but useless) projects including roads and dams such as the Chikaldhara Pumped Storage Project and the Upper Tapi Stage II.

The Nature Conservation Society, Amravati (NCSA), BEAG and Sanctuary Asia united with other groups to keep the threats at bay. With help from a handful of visionary government officials, the adjoining Wan, Narnala and Ambabarawa sanctuaries were notified as Critical Tiger Habitats in 2007, along with the original Melghat Wildlife Sanctuary and Gugamal National Park forests. Between 2011 and 2015, nine villages opted to be relocated from the southern part of Melghat to access a better quality of life. The results were there to see in the shape and form of predator and prey recoveries. Today, spillover tiger populations have begun dispersing toward Yawal to the west. 

Now, after two decades of painstaking work, a proposed project to enhance the metre-gauge track to broad gauge using the alignment of the existing Akola-Khandawa railway line that passes through the Wan sanctuary, core of Melghat Tiger Reserve, the buffer zone of the reserve in Maharashtra as well as in Madhya Pradesh and the forest area beyond, could undo years of good work. 

The existing, slow-running trains have already caused uncounted wildlife deaths. This slaughter is now bound to rise. The National Board for Wildlife clearly states by policy that linear projects should not be allowed through the core of tiger reserves. This is because empirical data proves that increased frequency and speed of trains will take an unacceptable toll of wild species. 

No mitigation attempts can ever hope to eliminate the problem. Instead, conservationists have suggested that the track be diverted via a new route that will be a mere 10 to 13 km. longer but will avoid the present hilly terrain, which in any event poses risks to trains, particularly if confronted by inclement weather. The alternate route would also service a much larger number of villages, thus benefiting more humans.

Legally, no infrastructure such as railways stations can in any event be built in the core of Melghat. There is already a station and railway infrastructure at Wan road even though there is no village there. This increases the workload of the over-stretched Forest Department which cannot hope to distinguish poachers from genuine passengers. There are two tunnels on the existing railway line inside the Wan Sanctuary. Here, people routinely stop the train by pulling the chain to surreptitiously collect and transport forest produce and poached derivatives using the Wan and Talai tunnels as cover. The traders who operate between Akot and Dhulghat are basically already having a field day.

Sanctuary readers are requested to write to protest the destruction of Melghat.
Make these points and send your messages to: 
Suresh Prabhu, Minister of Railways, Government of India, New Delhi. 
Devendra Fadnavis, Chief Minister of Maharashtra, Mantralaya, Mumbai - 400 034. 
To support the NCSA, write to: Kishor Rithe, Founder of NCSA, Pratishtha, Bharat Nagar, Akoli Road, near Sai Nagar,
Amravati - 444 607. 
Fax: (0721) 2510966.


The 17.3 km. Akola-Khandawa railway line already transects the core of the Wan Sanctuary in the Melghat Tiger Reserve and has resulted in the deaths of several wild animals. Photo Courtesy: Satpuda Foundation
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