The Forest Dept’s proposal to denotify sanctuary area, and Sun Pharma’s proposal to expand its facility located within the sanctuary have raised red flags among conservationists.

Explained The controversy around reducing buffer zone of Vedanthangal Bird SanctuaryWikimedia Commons/Gshashidhar125
news Controversy Friday, June 12, 2020 - 19:03

Over the last one week, the Vedanthangal Bird Sanctuary, located in Chengalpattu district, Tamil Nadu, held the attention of conservationists and wildlife activists across the country. They were raising awareness, calling for campaigns and seeking signatures for petitions against the proposed commercialisation of the bird sanctuary, located not far away from Chennai. All the frenzy was following a report in The New Indian Express by reporter Krishna Chaitanya.

The report stated that the Tamil Nadu Forest Department had proposed to the State Wildlife Board to redefine the existing borders of the Vedanthangal Bird Sanctuary in Maduranthakam, paving the way for commercial expansion in the area. It said that the State Wildlife Board had approved this proposal and had subsequently moved it up to the approval of the National Board for Wildlife (NBW). According to the TNIE article, Sun Pharmaceuticals Industries Limited, which has its facility near the sanctuary area, was planning to expand and thus, was seeking environmental clearance from the Union Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change.

The curious timing of the proposal to commercialise a significant portion of the area around the wildlife sanctuary as well as the pharmaceutical company’s expansion plans raised red flags with conservationists and soon, snowballed into a controversy.

Not long afterwards, the state Forest Department went on the offensive and the pharmaceutical company in question put out a statement clarifying its expansion — both said that the report was false.

So what is happening at Vedanthangal? Is a portion of the sanctuary under threat of being commercialised?

The proposal

The Vedanthangal Bird Sanctuary, one of the oldest water bird sanctuaries in the country, is a lake spread on an area of 29.5 hectares (73.06 acres), surrounded by a five-kilometre zone of revenue lands (land that may not be used for residential or industrial purposes). A 1998 Government Order (GO MS 199) declared this lake area and a five-kilometre radius surrounding it a wildlife sanctuary under the Wildlife Protection Act, 1972.

It is this radius area that has now come under the spotlight, following the Tamil Nadu Forest Department’s proposal to denotify the outer two-kilometre zone of the sanctuary, which make up its ‘buffer zone’.

In his article in Science - The Wire, writer and activist Nityanand Jayaraman linked notes from the ‘Recommendation Report’ and ‘Site Inspection Report’ filed by Chennai’s Wildlife Warden on January 23.

In these notes, the Wildlife Warden explained his proposal to denotify the two-kilometre buffer zone. Stating that the area to be denotified comprises private, patta and poramboke lands, the note mentions that during nesting season, the birds use only the lake area. He concludes, thus, that denotifying this area would not have any negative impact on the sanctuary. Rather, it would only have a positive impact on the local community, he notes.

Instead, “they will be free from restrictions on land conversion, own house construction and any other personal activities in the Sanctuary,” the Warden adds in his note.

“…It is proposed that, for the main lake area of 29.51 ha, surrounding 5 kms zonation of Vedanthangal Bird Sanctuary may be brought down to 3 kms in which first 1 km zone may be notified as Core Zone including main lake/tank and next 2 kms may be notified as Buffer Zone (Annexure III). And, outer 2 kms zonation of the existing 5 kms boundary shall be de-notified. (sic),” reads the Recommendation Report.

On March 19, Principal Secretary to Government, Environment and Forests Department, Shambhu Kallolikar, wrote a letter to the National Board for Wildlife, recommending the proposal.

In order for any denotification request to be approved, the State Wildlife Board will have to approve and recommend it to the National Wildlife Board. Only if this request is approved by the NWB can the state government subsequently issue an order to denotify the area under the Wildlife Protection Act.

The reports provoked outrage. Environmental activists and conservationists highlighted the threat to the Bird Sanctuary, the ecosystem around it and the effect on water bodies.

The denial

However, on Monday, four days after the TNIE article was published, Sun Pharma, the pharmaceutical company that was reportedly looking to expand its operation inside the sanctuary area, tweeted a statement. It claimed that it had no plans to expand its manufacturing operations inside the sanctuary.

“The company is not buying any additional land either near the plant or inside the sanctuary,” read their statement. Sun Pharma’s facility in Maduranthakam is among their six Active Pharmaceutical Ingredients (API) manufacturing sites in the country.

On Tuesday, the Forest Department issued a press release by the Principal Chief Conservator of Forests (PCCF) and the Chief Wildlife Warden expressly denying the claims in the report. They officials said that since 2009, based on the Centre’s directions, the five-kilometre area of the sanctuary has been demarcated as core zones (one km), buffer zones and eco-sensitive zones (two km each), respectively. The government’s statement said that the five-kilometre radius will be protected as is.

The release reiterated that the area falls under the Wildlife Protection Act, Forest Conservation Act, and the Environmental Protection Act, and will continue to do so.

Contradictions

However, it is to be noted that in his January 2020 Recommendation Report, the Wildlife Warden refers to the 1998 GO that declared the lake and the surrounding five-kilometre area (combined) as a wildlife sanctuary. He writes, “...the whole sanctuary is treated as a core zone for management, and there is no buffer zone.”

Tuesday’s press release points out that the Union MoEF, in a notification, recommended all sanctuaries to be demarcated as core, buffer and eco-sensitive zones for administrative purposes. And it is this demarcation that has been put in place at Vedanthangal since 2009, it states.

The Wildlife Warden’s inspection notes dated January 23, 2020 (on denotifying the two-kilometre buffer zone) and the Environment and Forests Department’s letter on March 19, 2020 (recommending the proposal) appear to contradict the latest government denial on June 9.

In a subsequent report, TNIE said that documents submitted to the Union Ministry do not make any mention of the zonation of the sanctuary, as discussed in the press release.

Nityanand writes in his article that under the Wildlife Protection Act 1972, there are no provisions to declare an area within a sanctuary as core or buffer zone. These demarcations were only specific to the tiger reserve areas, put in place by a 2006 amendment to the Wildlife Act.

Moreover, eco-sensitive zones are defined outside the boundaries of these protected areas. This means, in Vedanthangal’s case, the eco-sensitive zone should lie outside the sanctuary.

Sun Pharma had reportedly submitted an application to the Union Environment Minister with an intent to expand its present facility on May 30. According to the aforementioned news reports, Sun Pharma’s application to the Union Ministry for clearance reportedly stated that it is located 3.72 km from the boundary of the lake and 0.72 km outside the sanctuary’s boundary. The latter portion appears to indicate that the pharmaceutical company was aware of the Warden’s proposal to denotify and reduce the sanctuary's border to three-kilometres from the tank’s limits.

Activists have subsequently questioned the clarifications issued both by the state Forest Department as well as Sun Pharma. 

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