In an unprecedented move, Prime Minister Narendra Modi has approved a toothless National Board for Wildlife without the mandatory non-government members.
Under the law, the Board must have 10 non-government individual wildlife and ecology experts and five non-government expert institutions on board, beside the government officials.
The Centre has approved the Board with two non-government experts: One is a retired forest service officer from Gujarat and the other is an elephant ecology expert.
In the name of non-government institutions, it has got a Gujarat government body called Gujarat Ecological Education and Research Foundation. The Gujarat chief minister, currently Anandiben Patel, is the head of the board of governors of this institute.
Some previous prominent members/entities on the National Wildlife Board
The National Board for Wildlife is the apex body under the Wildlife Protection Act, 1972, to review all wildlife-related matters and approve projects in and around national parks and sanctuaries.
With about 200 projects pending for clearance from the Board, having government or quasi-government officials on board is expected to make life easier for the government as compared to very vocal or eminent conservationists on board.
All non-government experts are nominated on the board with the approval of the prime minster. The Board has three parliamentarians and senior officials of the ministries concerned. The Board's functioning is handled by the ministry of environment and forests (MoEF) and it has several senior officials from it on board.
"It has been decided the board be formed with the minimum of quorum," a senior official told Business Standard, on condition of anonymity. The wildlife law or the existing regulations did not set such a quorum, he admitted. The presence of a minimum number of members - quorum - is usually required for holding meetings of groups but not for formation of the group in the first place.
While the entire 47-member board usually meets once a year, it's the standing committee, headed by MoEF minister, which is more crucial on a daily basis. After a Supreme Court order, the standing committee is required to review and appraise all projects that require forest lands either inside the national parks and sanctuaries or within a 10-km radius around them. Earlier, the standing board had five non-government experts and three non-government institutions.
The previous members on the standing committee flagged off several projects and forced the review of many projects which the ministry officials themselves were unwilling to question. The members also tried to put in place a series of policy-level checks on what kind of areas could be given away.
Another official Business Standard spoke to said: "It is unprecedented. The standing committee is anyway recommendatory and in the past it has been overruled by the minister on occasions. There are times the government can disagree with these experts but it did create a robust check with so many prominent voices on board."
A wildlife expert who had served on the standing committee said: "The non-officials on the Board are critical to carry out a good and impartial review of projects that come indiscriminately from states and often do not go through any scrutiny at the Centre either. It is unfortunate if the government wants to push decisions through a pliable Wildlife Board."
The perusal of the minutes of the standing committee meeting over the past three years show how on various occasions the experts took on the views of the environment ministry officials and made the government at least go for deeper and field-based review, if not absolute rejection of the projects.
Government sources said while the formal notification of the Board would be put out in public domain in a few days, the environment minister, Prakash Javadekar, had already instructed that a meeting be organised soon.