June 12, 2022
THREAD: A new "gag order" from the environment ministry threatens to censor scientific research produced by the Wildlife Institute of India. What was the trigger?
@jeffjoseff finds a mix of high-stakes court cases and inconvenient truths. Read on!
On April 18, @moefcc's Wildlife Division wrote a letter to @wii_india with a rather innocuous subject line: “Publication of documents by Wildlife Institute of India- approvals-reg.”
What the line hid was that an autonomous body was bluntly directed to run its scientific findings through the officialdom.
For the first time in WII's existence (since 1986) it was being asked to get its reports and publications approved by the ministry before publishing.
The letter also directed WII to seek the ministry’s approval "ex-post facto" for documents and publications already in the public domain – effectively subjecting them to retrospective scrutiny.
Now, how autonomous is WII? And how important is its autonomy?
“The autonomy is not financial as the institute has always been dependent on the ministry for funds,” says wildlife biologist
@mdmadhusudan, who co-founded
@ncfindia and is a former student of @wii_india.
The governments have traditionally valued the institute’s autonomy even when the institute has caused them embarrassment on several occasions. The track record of
@wii_india till now is proof of this.
In 2005, Sariska Tiger Reserve counted pug marks as proof of living tigers and kept their numbers thriving, on paper. It was a report by AJT Johnsingh, a faculty of WII, that eventually busted the lie.
There isn’t a clear explanation for the April letter from the environment ministry. And, WII is yet to seek further clarifications from the ministry.
Neither @byadavbjp nor officials in the Wildlife Division of
@moefcc have responded to our queries.
Fingers are pointed towards a Supreme Court case. It involves the Great Indian Bustard (GIB), a 'near-extinction' bird found only in Rajasthan and Gujarat and their habitat, which coincides with an area of high interest to India’s growing wind and solar producers.
In October 2018, WII published the Power-line Mitigation report.
Mentioning the GIB’s sideways vision, the report concluded that the birds were vulnerable to collision with overhead power-lines and suffered a high mortality rate.
The researchers called the high mortality rate unsustainable for the species and concluded that “unless power-lines mortality is mitigated urgently, extinction of GIB is certain.”
A plea was filed in the SC on July 15, 2019. Much to the embarrassment of the government, the 2018 WII report was quoted. The same report was quoted in a separate case filed with the National Green Tribunal earlier in 2019.
The writ petition in the SC sought interim directions to the states of Rajasthan and Gujarat, not to permit the installation of overhead power lines or allow further construction of windmills and solar infrastructure in potential habitats, as identified by WII.
In December 2020, NGT ordered the installation of diverters on existing power lines and undergrounding of new power lines.
While in the SC, Solar Power Developers Association and Wind Independent Power Producers Association filed a clutch of interlocutory applications.
Association members include Adani Solar, Aditya Birla, Essar Power, Hero Future Energies, Huawei Telecommunications and Tata Capital.
In April 2021, SC ordered the conversion of overhead powerlines to underground powerlines in "priority and potential habitats of GIB".
In another state, another WII report also gave grounds for criticism of the government. In Chhattisgarh’s Hasdeo Arand matter, its report recommended a stop to new mines, which the centre and state governments ignored.
What would these directions mean for WII in the future?
An ecologist who has worked on biodiversity conservation (and who didn’t wish to be named) called the ministry’s letter the final nail in the coffin of independent research.
Apart from the concerns about WII’s independence, ecologist Madhav Gadgil expressed doubts that the demand to seek approval for already published reports and papers suggests that the ministry is planning something more.
“They will take the reports off the website. Look what happened to the ‘Western Ghats Ecology Expert Panel’ report,” Gadgil said. The environment ministry recently took the report off its website.
And that is a fear shared by many.
“What is the need of a scientific body if its job is merely to be a cheerleader to the government?” asks @mdmadhusudan.
“To create another caged parrot which toes the line,” says the former bureaucrat.
Read the full story in @TheWireScience here 👇🏼
Research carried out at @LandConflicts|Editorial Supervision by @furquansid