Gujarat’s State Board of Wild Life (SBWL), headed by Chief Minister Bhupendra Patel, has given the green light to telecom major Reliance Jio Infocomm to set up mobile towers in the protected areas of the Gir Forest and other sanctuaries in Gujarat.
According to a report by The Indian Express, the minutes of the 20th meeting of SBWL held on December 22 revealed that Jio’s applications have been granted. It further recorded that the applications by other agencies seeking clearance for laying underground fibre optical cables have also been approved.
RIL group president, Dhanraj Nathwani, who is also a member of SBWL — a statutory body that advises the state government on matters of wildlife and protected forest areas — was also present in the December 22 meeting.
“The member secretary informed the board the proposal was submitted by various user agencies online for laying under-ground optical fiber cable and mobile towers passing through various Protected Areas. No tree cutting is involved. The optical fibre connectivity in villages mentioned in the project will help in reducing human-wildlife conflict by way of better surveillance and communication infrastructure. The board deliberated the proposal and decided to recommend the same to the state government for consideration and necessary clearance…” read the minutes of the meeting, as shared by the newspaper.
The SBWL has, however, laid conditions like Jio requiring preparing a conservation plan relevant to a biological entity affected due to the project and depositing the fund before initiating any work on the land. The company will not be allowed to set up any temporary or permanent labour camps inside the sanctuary and it will have the permission to carry out work only during the daytime.
The SBWL clearance marks the first major milestone for the proposed towers. While the state wildlife boards have powers to grant clearance to linear infrastructure projects such as OFC passing through protected forest areas, proposals pertaining to other types of infrastructure are forwarded to the National Board for Wildlife (NBWL) for final approval. Also, as these towers are proposed to be set up on sanctuary land, the company will also require obtaining forest clearance.
Parimal Nathwani, Rajya Sabha MP and director (corporate affairs) of RIL, the parent company of Reliance Jio Infocomm, had tweeted earlier this month that the telecom firm would not move further with its plans to construct 34 telecommunication towers inside Gir sanctuary “unless it will be confirmed by the wildlife wing of the state forest department,” said the report.
Jio Infocomm had filed five applications with the office of the principal chief conservator of forests (wildlife) and chief wildlife warden of Gujarat seeking wildlife clearance for constructing 34 telecommunication towers inside Gir National Park and Wildlife Sanctuary — one in Girnar Wildlife Sanctuary, seven in Shoolpaneshwar Wildlife Sanctuary and two in Ratanmahal Sloth Bear Sanctuary. Of the four sanctuaries, Gir and Girnar sanctuaries are the habitat of the famous Asiatic lions. The chief wildlife warden, also the ex-officio member-secretary of SBWL, tabled these applications at the 20th meeting on December 22 for discussion, says the report.
Gir is the largest integrated tract of forest in western India. After the report came out, many conservationists had voiced their disapproval on social media, questioning the need for these towers to be highly protected and one of the best-managed sanctuaries of the country. An online signature campaign against the proposal and addressed to the Prime Minister was also launched.
The reports led to a statement, posted on Twitter, by Parimal Nathwani, who claimed that Jio had moved the proposals after being requested by the wildlife wing of the state forest department in 2020. The RIL director clarified that the said proposal was put forward only to facilitate the need of the wildlife wing of the Forest Department and the company has no commercial concern and benefit out of this initiation.