The 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.
Minutes of the 20th meeting of SBWL held on December 22, accessed by The Indian Express, revealed that Jio’s applications have been granted. It further recorded that applications by other agencies seeking clearance for laying underground fibre optical cables (OFC) 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 & 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.
The SBWL has, however, laid conditions like Jio requiring to prepare a conservation plan relevant to a biological entity affected due to the project and deposit 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 require to obtain forest clearance separately.
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”.
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 Gir lions.
Accordingly, the chief wildlife warden, who is also ex-officio member-secretary of SBWL, had tabled these applications at the 20th meeting on December 22 for discussion and necessary action.
After The Indian Express reported that Jio has proposed to construct towers in Gir, the largest integrated tract of forest in western India, many wildlifers and conservationists had voiced their disapproval on social media, questioning the need of these towers in 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. Nathwani’s tweet came in this backdrop.
In a statement he had posted on his Twitter account, Nathwani had claimed that Jio had moved the proposals after being requested by the wildlife wing of the Gujarat forest department in 2020.
The RIL director, who identifies himself as a “wildlife enthusiast”, had further stated that Jio has decided to put the proposal on hold in view of what he termed “some elements wrongly circulating on social media that Jio is planning to establish its infrastructure inside sanctuaries for commercial gains”. “…It is wrongly being circulated in social media by some elements that Jio wants to establish this network for its commercial benefits and tried to create misconception against company’s vision and mission. Jio wants to clarify that the said proposal was put forward only to facilitate the need of wildlife-wing of Forest Department and company has no commercial concern and benefit out of this initiation,” Nathwani had stated.