New Delhi: A Supreme Court order today, virtually putting on hold the decisions taken by the newly reconstituted National Wildlife Board, has left the Narendra Modi government red-faced. The Prime Minister himself chairs the board, which is in charge of protecting the country's flora and fauna. But the Centre is fighting charges of circumventing rules to choose infrastructure over environment.
The board took up about 140 projects for clearance, including roads, power plants and railway lines when it met on Aug 12 and 13. But today, the court asked it not to implement any decisions till the next date of hearing - which is two weeks later.
The court's intervention came in response to a plea by environmentalists, who contend that the new government is rendering the board toothless by suppressing independent voices in it.
According to the Wildlife Protection Act of 1972, the 47-member board has to include five members of green non-governmental organisations and 10 independent members -- environmentalists, conservationists and ecologists.
But earlier this month, the government decided to appoint only three independent members -- two from Prime Minister Narendra Modi's home state Gujarat and one from Bangalore. The environmentalists moved court after failing to get PM Modi to act on the issue.
"The court has said the board can continue to function but its decisions should not be implemented till the court hears the case," advocate for the petitioner Sanjay Upadhyay told NDTV.
Some of the projects considered by the board in a meeting on August 12-13 include a highway project in Kutch through the "flamingo city" - the only known nesting site for flamingos in the subcontinent. The idea had been rejected by the previous board. Besides, there is a hydroelectric power project over the Teesta river in Sikkim and some projects that are close to crucial wildlife parks like Pench in Madhya Pradesh, Periyar in Kerala and Dampa in Mizoram.
"The government is hoping for a pliable committee. The orders of this committee can be challenged in the Supreme Court. The government should rectify this," said P K Sen, former director of Project Tiger.
"The wildlife board regulates policy, it advises the Supreme Court on these matters. Without independent voices, it becomes toothless," said Bittu Sahgal, a former board member.