August 2019 Floods in Sangli and Kolhapur districts of Maharashtra have been historic. River levels washed away all past records many times over. New High Flood Levels (HFL) were reached multiple times at multiple places both in Sangli and Kolhapur. These districts, which form the fertile Black Cotton Soil belt of Maharashtra, are the floodplains of mighty rivers of the Krishna Basin: Krishna, Koyna, Warna, Panchaganga, Tarli, Urmodi, Dudhganga, Hiranyakeshi etc.
According to data from the Ministry of Mines, Maharashtra state recorded 26,628 cases of illegal mining in 2017, the highest across the country. In 2018, data up to June showed 2,751 cases. Between 2013 and 2018, 2,228 people were booked for illegal mining, one court case was filed, and 163,366 vehicles were seized. The fines collected for illegal mining over 6 years was ₹ 365 Crores.
As per another report, Maharashtra has highest number of cases of non-compliance of sustainable sand mining management guidelines, 2016. According to data submitted in the Lok Sabha, the ministry received 7 major complaints regarding non-compliance in 2017, out of which 6 were from Maharashtra and one from Himachal Pradesh. The highest number of illegal mining instances have been recorded in the state as per data by the ministry of environment, forest and climate change. It recorded around 139,700 illegal mining cases between 2013 and 2017.
Maharashtra SBWL The State Board for Wildlife has been formed under the Section 6 of the Wildlife Protection Act (1972) (and its subsequent Amendment in 2002) in all states of the country. The main functions of this Board are conservation and protection of wildlife in Protected areas, selection and appraisal of areas to be declared as sanctuaries, etc. It also appraises proposals which affect Protected areas or buffer zones around Protected areas and only after the recommendation of the State Board for Wildlife (SBWL), is the proposal forwarded to the Standing Committee of the National Board for Wildlife.
In Maharashtra, Chief Minister is the Chairperson of the Board, while chief wildlife warden is the member-secretary. Forest minister is the vice-president of the board and minister of state for forest, FDCM (Forest Development Corporation of Maharashtra) managing director, head of forest force (HoFF), field directors of tiger reserves, principal secretary (forest), and principal secretary (tribal development) among others are on the board.
Apart from the government representation, the SBWL also has sizable representation from reputed Wildlife Experts and organizations, some of which have been the members of the SBWL for more than a decade now. Some members include: Sanctuary Asia editor Bittu Sahgal, Bombay Natural History Society’s (BNHS) Dr. Asad Rehmani, Satpuda Foundation’s Kishor Rithe, Bharati Vidyapeeth’s Dr. Erach Bharucha, Executive Director of Wildlife Protection Society of India (WPSI) Belinda Wright, Wildlife expert Anish Andheria, Wildlife Conservation Trust’s (WCT) Hemendra Kothari, Eco-Pro president Bandu Dhotre, MLAs Anandrao Gedam from Armori and Jagdishchandra Valvi, Honorary Wildlife Warden of Pune Anuj Khare etc.
SBWL minutes, Agenda not in public domain Due to some problematic projects considered in the NBWL from Maharashtra, SANDRP tried to access the minutes of the SBWL to understand it’s functioning and decision making. We could not find the minutes in the open domain, the minutes should have been available on the website. Even the agenda and minutes of the National Board for Wildlife which recommends Wildlife Clearance, Expert Appraisal Committee of MoEF which recommends Environmental Clearance or the Forest Advisory Committee which recommends Forest Clearance are available in public domain.
RTI gets no reply We wrote to the Principal Secretary, Revenue and Forests, and PCCF, requesting them to share the minutes but we received no response. We wrote to some members of the SBWL for the minutes, we received no response. ( We could not write to all members as the constitution of the Board and list if members too is not available in the open domain).We contacted the media persons who wrote on SBWL meetings, but they did not have access to minutes. In the meantime, many problematic projects like Gargai Project involving 750 hectares inside the Tansa Sanctuary, Nardawe Irrigation Project, Shirapur Lift Irrigation Scheme, which involved clear violations, were recommended by the SBWL. We wrote about these projects and violations involved to some members, but received no response.
Finally we filed an RTI for all past agenda items and minutes of the SBWL. We filed this RTI in April 2014 with the Wildlife Department, Nagpur. Again we received no response. When we called the PIO, Wildlife Division, we were told “There are 32 PIOs in the department, How on earth would they know where our application is?” We talked with the Principal Chief Conservator of Forests, but he asked us to file an RTI again as the original application was untraceable at the office. We filed a new application, even this time we did not get a response in the mandated 30 days. To cut the long story sort, we received half of the information we asked for 3 months after the application. In the meantime we were also told by the office that these proposals are considered by NBWL again, so why are you worried?
Of the 8 Meetings of the SBWL conducted, we received agenda notes and minutes for 4 meetings exactly over 4 years: from 4th meeting in 20.02.2009 to the 8th Meeting in 20.02.2014. The decisions of the SBWL in these meetings on WRD projects are compiled in the table at the end of this report.
As we will see below there are many concerns about the way SBWL is functioning. This is worrisome because the current 33-member committee has ample number of non-government representatives, some noted wild lifers who are passionate about their work. Some of these organisations and individuals have been a part of the SBWL for more than decade now. Although the SBWL is not functioning transparently and accountably, we hear no protest from these members or demands that SBWL needs to function in a transparent way in the open domain. Neither is any dissent minuted in the SBWL meeting minutes.
At the same time, we are aware that some members are trying to fight this situation and have been raising issues, this too gets hidden due to lack of transparency about the functioning of the Board.
Some of the major issues about the functioning of SBWL include:
Many projects are cleared despite clear violations. There is nothing in the minutes to reflect if SBWL members are aware of the ground realities.
Decisions taken in an earlier meeting are changed in the next with no explanations given.
Contradictory decisions being taken, no consistency in decision making.
SBWL Members do not respond to submissions, even if they outline serious issues.
Agenda and Minutes not in open domain. Forest Officials do not share these even when requested
Minutes of the SBWL meetings have no discussions, only decisions.
SANDRP analyzed agenda items of 4 meetings from 2009 to 2014 which were provided to us under RTI. During this period, the SBWL did seem to be taking some good decisions and initiatives about wildlife conservation. This mainly included declaration of new Protected Areas and some conservation reserves. This is commendable, although here too we see only a few members of the SBWL being active on these proposals.
On the other hand, SBWL’s decision making about sanctioning projects is seriously problematic. As SANDRP deals with issues concerning rivers and dams, we are specifically looking at these examples as illustrated below:
Ignoring clear violations: In the 8th meeting the SBWL (on 20.02.14) recommended:
Alewadi Irrigation project in Buldana, 1 km from Melghat Tiger Reserve
Ar Kacheri Irrigation project in Buldana, 1 km from Melghat Tiger Reserve
Shirapur Lift Irrigation Scheme in Solapur parts of it inside Great Indian Bustard Sanctuary, Solapur
Nardawe Irrigation Project, Sindhudurg, 2.5 kms from Radhanagari Sanctuary
Shockingly, ALL of these projects are already under construction when they came before SBWL, in clear violation of WPA (1972) and Supreme Court Orders. Projects are supposed to obtain the Wildlife clearances before even starting survey works and of course before initiating the work. And the fact that no-one raised the issue of these violations seems to indicate that either the members did not know of this ground reality or they chose to ignore it.
In this case, all of the projects are in violation of the WPA and should undergo necessary punitive action. But what we see in the minutes is that all these projects are recommended for clearance! This indicates the serious issues with the SBWL. When the same projects were considered for Environmental Clearance by the EAC of the MoEF, this committee did not clear these projects and passed strictures against GOM for violations. Note that this was BEFORE these projects were considered by the SBWL.
In April 2014, SANDRP sent an email to some members of the SBWL as well as the Chief Minster, Principal Secretary and PCCF, drawing their attention to the violations, strictures passed on these projects by MoEF’s Expert Appraisal Committee on River Valley Projects, requesting the SBWL to take back their recommendation of clearance to these violating projects. But we have received no response till now.
Hugely Contradictory Decisions:
While considering the Tambadi Irrigation Project in Roha, Raigad (Buffer Zone of Phansad Sanctuary) in the 7th SBWL Meeting on 24.1.13, the SBWL passed strict comments on the Water Resources Department , Maharashtra (WRD), stating that:
“All members were of the opinion that no proposal of Irrigation Department should be recommended as the department did not comply with the instructions about mitigation measures which should be taken up like construction of over passes and steps in canals within wildlife corridors. It was reiterated by the Board that unless required action is taken, no proposal would be considered by the board.”
Please note this is the part of the APPROVED minutes circulated to the members on the 7th March 2013. Reading this, anyone would get an impression that all further projects from WRD would not be considered. Shockingly, Action Taken Report for the same project attached to the Agenda of the 8th Meeting (20.02.14) states that: “As decided in the 7th meeting a committee comprising 4 members has been constituted to study this and….it came out with possible mitigation measures.”
Firstly, approved minutes do not reflect this decision and secondly, the approved minutes had taken a completely opposite stand than what is decided. This indicates serious problems in not only minuting the meetings but also inconsistency in decision-making.
Similarly, the committee considered diversion proposal of Savarde Irrigaton project in its 5th Meeting on the 28.06.11.
Dr Asad Rahmani after conducting a Site visit to the project recommended several strong conditions for the project which included:
Cumulative impact assessment of major and medium projects on Radhanagari Wildlife Sanactuary,
Permission from Western Ghats Expert appraisal Panel headed by Prof Gadgil and
WRD to give in writing that no new project impinging directly or indirectly or Radhanagari Sanctuary will be taken up.
WRD provided no responses on this.
When the proposal was discussed for the third time in NBWL on the 24th April 2011, the CCF told the NBWL that Maharashtra Government agreed with ALL conditions raised by Dr. Rahmani, except the one on sharing water. The WRD had still not provided any response.
This indicates that the Maharashtra Government, especially WRD (Water Resources Department) is not bothered about any statutory clearance related processes surrounding its projects and that the GOM (Government of Maharashtra) has agreed that no new WRD projects will be undertake affecting Radhanagari Sanctuary.
Disturbingly, the same SBWL considered Nardawe Irrigation Project in its 8th meeting, which was affecting Radhanagari Sanctuary and also cleared it, without even mentioning its earlier commitment from WRD.
Add to this the fact that Nardawe Irrigation project was an ongoing project which had violated Forest Conservation Act (1980), Environment Protection Act (1986) and EIA notification 2006.
State Level Appraisal Bodies facing problems in Maharashtra Exactly one year back in July 2013, the Chairperson and majority members of the State Expert Appraisal Committee resigned together stating political and industrial pressures as the reasons.
When SANDRP talked with some present and past SBWL members, it was clear that there are several serious issues and hindrances in functioning of SBWL. Agenda is not sent even a week before the meeting giving the members no time to understand the projects, in some meetings agenda was put on the table at the time of the meeting. It is significant to note that the Agenda notes received by SANDRP under RTI do not carry dates.
Many of the meetings are “clearance” meetings where projects are set out, expected to be cleared, like the 8th Meeting before the Lok Sabha Election, which had a number of proposals from WRD, when it was stated by the SBWL itself that it will not consider any further proposal from WRD. Not surprisingly, 4 project considered and recommended by the SBWL in its last meetings were in violation of the WPA (1972) as noted above.
At the same time, some active members on the condition of anonymity stated that many members do not raise voice against problematic projects and it is left only to a few members, who raise issues all the time. Some members are happy being a part of a board which is headed by the CM and attend meetings where CM is present and will not raise issues. Some members and organizations have to be in the good books of the Forest and Environment Departments as well as the politicians.
We have stated upfront that the SBWL has also taken some commendable decisions, like the formation of new protected areas. However there is no denying the fact that functioning of SBWL is seriously problematic, opaque, non-transparent and contradictory.
It is high time that the Forest Officials, bureaucracy, politicians as well as the non-officials members take steps to improve the functioning of SBWL. Many of their current decisions will not stand legal scrutiny. The SBWL is a regulatory body and its functioning needs to be governed with some ‘rules of business’, rather than be arbitrary. For starters, the SBWL needs to put their agenda notes and minutes in open domain and invite comments on the same, as is being done by several other decision making bodies.