Infrastructure is considered the backbone of any economy. The impetus on infrastructure sector becomes much more in a growing economy, with the government terming investment in infrastructure “quintessential” to boost growth as highlighted in Economic Survey 2020-21. This can also be observed in several of the government’s policies and programmes in giving a push to this sector such as the ambitious National Infrastructure Pipeline (NIP) announced in 2019, which would need a projected investment of Rs. 111 lakh crore for carrying out the infrastructure projects between 2020 and 2025. The infrastructure projects which have come up across the country in the last few decades, along with extractive projects such as mining projects, have also encroached the forests and green cover which have been under ever increasing threat due to the pressure to make way for the infrastructure and mining projects at the cost of biodiversity and environment. Not just the forest areas have been diverted for non-forestry purposes, but even the protected areas such as tiger reserves have come under threat due to the “inevitability” of the infrastructure projects, which is often cited as the reason for giving a go ahead by the various ministries of governments including environment ministry.

The impact of infrastructure projects and resource extraction projects has not just been on the forest cover or the wildlife, but it has also affected the communities dependent on forests which have had a symbiotic relationship with the forests since centuries and who have also played a key role in protecting these forests. Forests and green cover include Scheduled V and VI forests and those outside this category, green cover in urban areas, fragmented patches of green cover, mangrove forests, rivers, wildlife habitats, protected areas/reserve areas, Ramsar sites, critical habitats, “empty” forests, lands used for industrial agriculture, etc.

On the one hand, the country has committed to various international frameworks for preserving the biodiversity and combating climate change such as CBD and 2015 Paris Agreement, and on the other hand the government has framed the policies dependent on resource extraction as the only possible path for development, under the larger framework of advancing pro-market reforms and globalization, which favors various industries at the cost of the people and the environment. These resources include coal (fossil fuels), minerals, water, oil, natural gas, hydrocarbons, timber, sand, land (in the name of Renewable Energy (RE) – solar, wind), etc.

In the current paradigm, the push for economic growth is excessively dependent on exploitation of natural resources, along with increase in energy production, which is leading to irreversible changes and is rendering the discourse on sustainability as an empty rhetoric. This is further accompanied by adverse changes brought to existing regulations, such as Draft EIA 2020, labour codes, dilution of FRA, etc. which has detrimental effects on the labour and the environment. Apart from the changes happening at the national level, the economic landscape is immensely shaped up by the policies pushed by international financial institutions such as the World Bank, the IMF, ADB, AIIB, etc. who continue to place high emphasis on nations having more private investments in infrastructure sector to achieve higher economic growth rate. (World Bank’s Billions to Trillions/Maximizing Finance for Development, AIIB’s Infrastructure Report 2019, World Bank’s Infrastructure in Asia 2020 Report). However, the quest for economic growth often comes at the cost of the well-being of communities dependent on natural resources.

The increasing number of infrastructure projects and the associated conversion of forests/green cover, most often, in the guise of ‘conservation’ and ‘afforestation’ also gives way to the extensive violations of rights of forest-dwelling communities. These forests are already contested landscapes wherein forest-dwellers strive to reclaim their rights to land titles, land, access to forest, maintaining livelihood through minor forest produce, etc. Often, their struggles and lives are riddled with conflicts with forest departments, governance issues and conflict with the wildlife. Similarly, other communities dependent on natural resources get affected by various infrastructure projects in the form of displacement or loss of livelihoods. The types of infrastructure projects which affect the communities and the environment include both linear infrastructure projects such as roads, railways, canals, inland waterways, transmission lines, etc. and other infrastructure projects such as mining projects, thermal power plants, hydels, dams and even tourism.

Efforts around these critical areas is organically driven by communities, activists, movements and grassroots groups, as “resistance” efforts for their rights to live with dignity, independence and for protecting their intrinsic way of living in communion with the natural environment have been going for many decades now. Moreover, from time to time environmentalists and citizens have also raised concerns over the onslaught of various projects threatening the wildlife and biodiversity which would eventually lead to irreversible damages. Most of the geography has already consisted of contested landscapes even before the entry of the infrastructure-extraction industry. Yet, the impact of such investments, the possible future impacts of the landslide of projects and especially the financing factors driving these disastrous projects have been studied and engaged with, only as fragmented strands in the larger civil society.

This brief report is an attempt to provide a mapping of various infrastructure projects which are located near or within protected areas, including tiger reserves, across the country. While this mapping exercise does not claim to be an exhaustive one, but it gives the reader a fair idea about the different categories of projects which are affecting the protected areas in the country, along with giving key insights through a detailed analysis of such projects and calls for looking at the cumulative impacts of these projects on the protected areas than just seeing these projects on a standalone basis. The report throws light on the diversion of forest land over the last few years for the purpose of infrastructure projects. The report also highlights the recent changes in the environmental laws and the key decisions taken around infrastructure projects which brings forward the questionable commitment of the government in saving the forests and protected areas. A section has also been devoted to showcasing some of the key infrastructure projects which have come up within or near protected areas or the projects which have been stalled due to opposition from citizens but still pose a threat of being implemented in the future. The report emphasizes the need for tracing the finances behind such infrastructure projects which play a key role in enabling them though a deeper probe would be taken up in the near future. The document would help the citizens, activists and people impacted by such infrastructure projects to engage with policymakers to demand a more stringent approach towards saving the protected areas and prioritizing the environment over the rampant growth causing irreversible damages.

Read and download the resource here: Mapping Report – Infra Projects in Protected Areas

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