2% mitigation cost for infra projects in protected areas done away with

More than a month after imposing 2 per cent mitigation cost for infrastructure projects passing though national parks, sanctuaries, tiger reserves etc., the National Board for Wildlife (NBWL) has decided to completely do away with any such cost.

Instead of imposing a fixed cost, mitigation measures and costs associated with such measures will be prescribed while recommending the project proposals. The ministry will issue an advisory to all the states/UTs in this regard, the standing committee of the NBWL under the Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change decided at its latest meeting, which was chaired by Environment Minister Bhupender Yadav.

During a meeting of the NBWL standing committee on August 7, the issue of cost of mitigation measures due to impact of developmental activities in protected areas was discussed owing to the fact that different states and UTs imposed different rates as the cost for mitigation of a project’s impact on the environment.

One of the members had suggested that the cost, if any, imposed for the mitigation measures should be 2 per cent of the proportionate cost of the projects passing through protected areas in ecologically sensitive zones (ESZ). It was also decided that this amount should be spent on mitigation measures within the same protected area.

During a meeting on September 24, the standing committee was “informed that the ministry is of the view that instead of imposing a uniform cost on all projects, it would be more appropriate if mitigation measures are suggested by the chief wildlife wardens for each project”, according to the minutes of the meeting.

The Secretary in the Environ Ministry, R.P. Gupta, observed that the cost imposed on user agencies is often not based on the impact of the activities to be undertaken under the project. He suggested that instead of imposing costs, it would be more rational if the chief wildlife wardens suggest the mitigation measures.

Gupta suggested that the standing committee “should examine the reasonability of the proposed mitigation measures and should not recommend any project without mitigation measures”.

Bhupender Yadav insisted on a strict time frame for clearing the projects with objective scrutiny.

“After discussions, the standing committee decided that measures to mitigate the impacts of projects in protected areas and eco-sensitive zones should be part of project proposals. The committee further decided that instead of imposing a fixed cost, mitigation measures and costs associated with such measures will be prescribed while recommending the project proposals. It was also decided that the ministry will issue an advisory to all the states/UTs in this regard,” the minutes of the meeting read.

Pointing out that the core point is not whether the cost imposed is “fixed or flexible”, senior researcher at the Centre for Policy and Research (CPR), Kanchi Kohli, said, “Instead, it is about examining the nature of infrastructure projects that are being pushed through in the important wildlife habitats in the name of them being beneficial for wildlife. Such decisions distract attention from scrutinising the need for fragmenting wildlife area to calculating offsets or engineering solutions like underpasses and culverts. The legal standing, ecological pretension and social blindness of these decisions are both evident and stark.”

Another moot question is whether the Environ Ministry’s track record gives any assurance that even the so-called mitigation actions would be carried out responsibly?

“The Environment Ministry’s focus has been on reconciling its action to the government’s economic priorities. So it is highly likely that the fallout of NBWL’s project by project consideration will financialise the damage to wildlife and its habitats in order to align with the push for linear and area-based infrastructure. The previous decisions don’t auger confidence that proposals will be thoroughly examined for their impact on wildlife,” Kohli said.

To start with, the ministry should be upholding the mandate of the Wildlife Protection Act and other conservation policies, she said, adding, “The law does not have procedures for diversion of wildlife areas and laying down mitigation measures. The NBWL’s functions are not to accommodate infrastructure projects, but to foreground conservation through the diverse models proposed in the law and the ministry’s own policies.”