Bengaluru: In Jan 2021, an independent body of experts created to evaluate projects by their environmental harm or benefit rejected a proposal from the forest department to recognise Hesaraghatta, a lush grassland and lake on Bangalore’s northwestern edge, as a conservation reserve.
If it was recognised as a conservation reserve, Hesarghatta would have legally been considered a protected area alongside national parks and sanctuaries. Instead, only two of the 31 members of the State Board for Wildlife (SBWL) supported the proposal, which was rejected, according to the minutes of the meeting held on 19 January, 2021.
This was the only decision that the current board has taken in nearly 17 months of its existence.
No infrastructure project can be cleared in a forest area without clearance from the SBWL, in a state where millions of trees over an area of about 460 sq km were lost over 20 years to 2021, a decline that is steadily accelerating at a time of global warming.
Hesaraghatta is an ecologically important grassland and lake that hosts endangered bird species, such as the Lesser Florican, which is protected under schedule I, the highest level of protection offered by the Wild Life Protection Act 1972 (WLPA).
Hesarghatta was also an important source of water for the city until the mid 1990s before its catchment area was encroached or built on. Environmental experts had hoped that once it became a protected area, the ecosystem could be saved and the catchment area revived to support the growing water needs of a city of more than 10 million people.
Karnataka’s SBWL was meant to be a guardian of sorts for such protected areas. In India’s federal system, the SBWL is “an important part of the environmental regulatory apparatus at the state level,” said M D Madhusudan, former member of the National Board for Wildlife (NBWL).
Headed by the chief minister, the board, with other elected representatives, experts, community organisations and officials, advises the state government on wildlife conservation, including the selection and management of protected areas. Official members of the SBWL include the chief minister, the forest minister and secretary of the tribal welfare department.
Prerna Bindra, another former member of the NBWL, said that the SWBL was not “only a watchdog but also an important body to keep checks and balances on protection of our natural heritage and wildlife".
Members of the SBWL are supposed to be experts nominated by the state government after recommendations by the state forest department. According to Section 6 of the WLPA, 10 of 31 members of the SBWL are supposed to be “eminent conservationists, ecologists and environmentalists”.
The new appointees do not have any such expertise and the process of nominating experts with forest department recommendations now appears to be disintegrating, following a trend that Article 14 first reported in 2020.
Prospective SBWL members now lobby for posts, and members of the legislative assembly (MLAs) sent the government recommendation letters for such appointments, according to documents obtained under the Right to Information Act 2005 by Punjur Doreswamy, an environmental activist based in Karnataka’s southern district of Chamarajanagar.
A Doctor, A Mining Baron, An MLA’s Son
It is apparent that many “non-official” members, meant to provide expert advice, to Karnataka’s current SBWL have little by way of wildlife conservation and related expertise.
This is how a list of politically influenced appointments were made since the board was constituted on 16 October 2020:
–On September 6 2020, A R Somashekar wrote to Anand Singh, Karnataka’s minister for tourism, ecology and forests, with a “request to be a member of the expert panel of Karnataka State Wildlife Board”. Documents obtained by Doreswamy contain Somashekar’s resume, indicating he is a pediatric doctor with no experience in wildlife conservation. Someshakar did not respond to a request for comment.
–On 19 August 2020, Dinesh Singhi, chief executive officer and managing director of Bharat Mines and Minerals, a soapstone mining and processing company, wrote to Singh with a request to be considered for appointment to the SBWL. He marked a copy of his request to the Karnataka forest department’s principal chief conservator of forests (wildife), who serves as member secretary, SBWL.
–On 13 July 2020, S R Vishwanath, MLA from Yelahanka, recommended the appointment of Alok Vishwanath, his son and a member of the Karnataka Youth Policy Committee, formed by the state government to “empower youth”, to the SBWL. Alok Vishwanath also wrote to B S Yediyurappa, then chief minister and an MLA, seeking appointment as SBWL member.
–On 6 August, Yediyurappa recommended the appointment of G Malleshappa, a local activist, and less than a month later on 1 September 2020, Chetan B, a worker of the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP).
–On 17 August 2020, R Ashoka, Karnataka revenue minister and MLA, recommended the appointment of Naveen J S, who is part of the BJP’s social-media team.
–On 2 September 2020, Preetam Gowda J, MLA from Hassan, recommended the appointment of Joseph Hoover, an ex-sports journalist and an environmental activist.
“I got a letter from an MLA because I had to,” Hoover told Article14, adding that there were “pressures” because many were doing the same.
“I agree, this is madness,” said Hoover. “And there’s no doubt we need a proper procedure for appointments. Right now, the forest department has no say and only ministers and MLAs decide [on the selection of SBWL members]”.
Hoover resigned from the SBWL in October 2021 because he “did not want to be questioned” and said he knew his “values”.
Alok Vishwanath, Ashoka, Singhi and Yediyurappa did not respond to queries about political interference in the appointment of SBWL members.
Nominations to the board were challenged in the Karnataka High Court in April 2021 by Bhoja Raju G M, an environmental consultant.
‘How Can They Speak For Wildlife?’
Conflict of interest and lack of discernible expertise is a problem plaguing wildlife boards nationwide, as Article 14 reported in December 2020.
These are the characteristics of organisations responsible for the preservation of India’s threatened wildlife and their diminishing habitat, such as national and state boards for wildlife and environment appraisal committees, and, at the highest levels, by national and state-level environment ministries.
These organisations are supposed to act as checks and balances against executive power if it is deployed against environmental interests, said experts. Instead, they are increasingly filled with members whose interests often lie in areas they are meant to scrutinise.
In the past, the Karnataka government appointed people who were qualified and had experience in wildlife conservation, said Doreswamy. The trend was apparent in 2020, as Article 14 reported, when in October that year, the government removed wildlife experts from the state wildlife board and instead included Alok Vishwanath, the MLA's son, and retained Singhi, the mining company CEO.
Praveen Bhargav, a former member of the NBWL, said the WLPA intended that the appointment of non-official members with expertise to SBWLs and the NBWL would “infuse both knowledge and independent opinion in the decision-making process”.
In recent years “family members of political leaders, people who are close to politicians and those with recommendation letters from political leaders are appointed”, said Doreswamy. “How can they speak for wildlife?”
Indeed, the government has favoured political appointees over experts, who tend to oppose decisions that are damaging to wildlife and forests.
In July 2020, Article 14 reported how wildlife laws were broken to clear an environmentally destructive railway line through the Western Ghats in Karnataka.
The minutes of SBWL meetings revealed that senior scientist with the Nature Conservation Foundation, Sanjay Gubbi; and elephant expert and member of the Asian Elephant Specialist Group of the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN), Ajai Desai, opposed the 168-km rail line from Hubballi to Ankola, planned through the lush forests in the Western Ghats, a chain of low mountains older than the Himalayas and inscribed in 2012 on a World Heritage List.
The government did not renominate Desai and Gubbi to the SWBL in January 2021.
This undermining of the decision-making process continued in 2022 with the rejection of the proposal to protect the Hessarghatta area.
The Conflict Of Interest In Hessarghatta
There appeared to be no scientific thought or concerns of wildlife conservation to the decision to create a protected area at Hessarghatta, said experts.
“The MLA of the region asked the Board not to accept the proposal as it was not discussed with him,” the New Indian Express reported on 20 January, 2021. “Also the area was dropped from the list as it has high real estate value and the land can be used to carve out layouts or be used for commercial spaces.”
The MLA in question is S R Vishwanath whose son now serves on the SBWL.
The New Indian Express also reported that the proposal was discussed during a meeting of the Bangalore Development Authority (BDA). The guideline value, the minimum value of a property as fixed by the government, for an acre of residential land in Hesaraghatta is around Rs 10 crore.
The minutes of the meeting reveal that while Alok Vishwanath took a leave of absence from the meeting, his father was present. The senior Vishwanath argued against the proposal stating “shortage of government land for several developmental activities that are required for a city like Bangalore”.
Accusing the government of allowing “nepotism” and the dilution of “public interest” in this particular instance of decision-making by the SBWL, former NWBL member Bharghav said lobbying for positions and irresponsible recommendations were “a major malaise” in the environment and wildlife advisory system today.
M K Ranjitsinh, former member of the NBWL and the Madhya Pradesh SBWL agreed. “Sifarish [recommendation] is a very common ailment because pliability is what they look for. They want ‘yes men’ [for clearing projects].”
In May 2021, responding to a petition by Vijay Nishanth—a member of the Bruhat Bengaluru Mahanagara Palike (BBMP) biodiversity committee—the Karnataka high court ordered the state government to not alter the nature of land at Hesaraghatta in any manner.
How Govt Misuses Gaps In The Law
Both the WLPA and the Karnataka SBWL Rules 2006 are silent on the exact procedure to be followed for appointments to the SBWL.
A common practice followed across the country is that the forest department prepares a list of names it would like to recommend to the SBWL, which the state government then evaluates.
Vijaykumar Gogi, principal chief conservator of forests (wildlife) or PCCF-WL of the Karnataka forest department declined comment on how appointments were made to the current SBWL because he took office after it was constituted.
The PCCF-WL serves as member secretary of the SBWL.
Gogi did confirm to Article 14 that his predecessor had recommended seven names, of which the state government appointed three: Hoover, Vinodkumar Naik and Malleshappa.
Since the WLPA and Karnataka SBWL Rules do not define expertise, and because the process is based on nominations, “the political establishment has huge discretionary powers which can be abused”, said Madhusudan.
“In a sense, appointments to wildlife boards—state or even national—have always been political because the final selection is usually done on the advice of the environment minister, or even at the chief minister or prime minister’s level,” said Bindra.
But, she added, it was a “ground-up process” via the forest bureaucracy and those who were appointed had “some standing, independence and expertise.”
For instance, chief wildlife wardens in the forest department made recommendations based on discussions with various divisional forest officers, conservationists and other experts. There have been instances when chief wildlife wardens resisted the nomination recommended by the chief minister.
“But increasingly, pliability seems like the criteria,” Bindra said. “With members with no conservation background, even the figleaf of compliance with requirements of the law is missing.”
The larger issue that required addressing, said experts, was political patronage.
Bringing transparency and public scrutiny to the process of selection of members is one potential route to resist political appointments, said Madhusudan.
If deliberations concerning the selection of wildlife board members or even rejection of recommendations of the forest department by the government are recorded in writing and made publicly available, along with members’ resumes, it would make the process open to public accountability, said Madhusudhan.
To avoid “regressions” like conflict of interest, he said, a simple nomination form that contains past experience and declarations of conflict of interest (if any) would further strengthen accountability.
(Rishika Pardikar is a freelance reporter from Bengaluru.)