Nearly 300 wildlife activists and conservationists have written to Environment Minister Prakash Javadekar to express "serious concerns about the lack of due diligence for (project and industrial) clearances" during the coronavirus lockdown.
The 18-page letter said online communications platforms such as video conferencing - pressed into use as the government enforces social distancing and work-from-home protocols to break the chain of transmission - were "inadequate" to fully investigate environmental clearance applications.
The activists also said that directions of the Supreme Court were being ignored and the ministry "appears to be abdicating its constitutional obligation of ensuring environmental protection.
The letter also made specific reference to clearances given at a meeting of the Standing Committee of the National Board for Wildlife in April, held amid the lockdown, at which 31 proposals affecting 15 tiger reserves, sanctuaries, notified eco-sensitive zones, deemed eco-sensitive zones and designated wildlife corridors were tabled.
"Granting fast-track clearances has now become the rule," Praveen Bhargav, a former member of the board that is chaired by Prime Minister Narendra Modi (one of 12 such signatories), said.
The letter pointed out that under normal circumstances expert-level meetings would last at least a day; those held during the lockdown have lasted two hours.
"Reliance on only digital documents, uploaded by project developers, compromises appraisals... crucial safeguards and guidelines, such as site visits, public hearings, inputs from relevant experts... are difficult to implement. These decisions have serious and far-reaching consequences... irreversible implications for our last remaining refuges of wildlife," Prerna Bindra, another signatory and former board member, said.
Highlighting such concerns, the letter called for fresh appraisals and to stay all clearances given so far, as well as postpone all meetings, till travel and meeting restrictions are lifted across India.
A nationwide lockdown was imposed in March to prevent the COVID-19 virus from spreading. Under the terms of the lockdown, all non-essential shops, services and offices, including government offices, were ordered to either close or switch to a work-from-home mode.
The government has credited the lockdown with controlling the spread of the virus; there are, however, nearly 75,000 COVID-19 cases in India, which is the 12th worst-affected country.
The lockdown has also been credited with positive changes in the environment.
Visuals of a cleaner Ganga have emerged from Uttar Pradesh's Kanpur as well as Varanasi; the clear water is a result of the shutdown of most industries. In a rare sighting, fish have also been seen near the ghaat steps in Varanasi, likely because of the absence of crowds and presence of clean water.
The lockdown has also led to better air quality.
According to World Air Quality, average concentration of PM 2.5 in Delhi came down by 71 per cent for a week last month. Nitrogen dioxide, a pollutant, has also witnessed a decline of 71 per cent.
Also last month, 1.5 lakh flamingos flocked to Navi Mumbai, creating a dazzling sea of pink. According to wildlife experts, there was a 25 per cent increase in the number of these graceful birds.