Telecom giant Reliance Jio Infocomm Limited has sought the Gujarat government’s approval to construct 45 telecommunication towers inside protected forest areas, of which 34 are proposed inside the Gir National Park and Wildlife Sanctuary.
If allowed, these would be the first towers on the nearly 1,400-sq km Gir sanctuary land, which is home to the world’s only population of lions in the wild outside Africa. Around 674 lions are believed to be in the Gir forest and other protected areas around it.
The application by Reliance Jio, a subsidiary of Reliance Industries Limited (RIL), was discussed at a meeting of the State Board for Wildlife on December 22 in Gandhinagar, chaired by Chief Minister Bhupendra Patel, who will take a call on the same.
In 2017, the Ministry of Environment and Forests had issued an advisory on setting up of mobile towers so as to minimise the impact of electro-magnetic radiation on wildlife. It had directed that the Forest Department be consulted before cellphone towers were installed in and around parks and zoos.
In 2015, then environment minister Prakash Javadekar said that while an expert panel had found that electromagnetic radiation affected biological systems of wildlife, there was no exact correlation between mobile tower radiation and health of wildlife.
Gujarat Forest, Environment and Climate Change Minister and vice-chairperson of the wildlife board Kiritsinh Rana confirmed that Jio’s application was discussed at the December 22 meeting. “We are awaiting the minutes of the meeting.
The matter is pending at the level of the CM, and he and the chief secretary will take an appropriate decision,” Rana told The Indian Express.
Incidentally, RIL Group President Dhanraj Nathwani, one of 10 ’eminent conservationist, ecologist and environmentalists’ in the wildlife board, was present at the December meeting.
A member of the board – that has 34 members, including the chief secretary, MLAs, NGOs including Corbett Foundation, DGP, and officials of the departments concerned – told The Indian Express that the meeting was not apprised of the exact location of the proposed towers, only that they would be installed on the peripheries of the sanctuaries.
The wildlife board advises the state government on matters of wildlife and protected areas. It is required to meet at least twice a year. However, the December 22 meeting was the first since September 2020, having been postponed twice.
Reliance Jio wants to construct 26 telecommunication towers in Junagadh and Gir Somnath districts in Gir West, and eight in Amreli district in Gir East wildlife divisions, apart from one tower in the Girnar Wildlife Sanctuary located on the border of Junagadh city. Taken together, these three divisions are home to 416 of the 674 Gir lions.
Apart from Gir and Girnar, Jio wants to raise seven and two towers in the Shoolpaneshwar Wildlife Sanctuary in Narmada district and the Ratanmahal Sloth Bear Sanctuary in Dahod district respectively.
The wildlife board is also considering an application by Jio Digital Fiber Pvt Limited, which provides optical fibre services for telecommunication services, to lay a 9-km underground cable in Shoolpaneshwar sanctuary.
Director, Corporate Affairs, RIL, Parimal Nathwani, who is a Rajya Sabha MP from Andhra Pradesh, said Jio’s application for telecom towers and optical fire cables in some wildlife sanctuaries was in line with the Government of India’s Digital India initiative, to provide “last mile connectivity to even the most remote villages”.
“We propose to set up our telecom network following all the due procedures stipulated by the Central/State Governments and after obtaining the required permissions from the concerned departments,” Nathwani replied in an email response to questions by The Indian Express.
On his son Dhanraj Nathwani’s presence at the December 22 meeting, Nathwani said, “Being a member of the Gujarat State Board for Wildlife, Mr. Dhanraj Nathwani attends the meetings of this Board on a regular basis since past several years. So, the question of conflict of interest does not arise.”
A government official, who did not want to be named, said setting up the towers would will facilitate technology-based solutions for wildlife management and protection. “While we are yet to get a formal communication in this regard and regarding coordinates of the sites of the proposed towers, if the proposals go through, they will solve the problem of grey areas of mobile connectivity inside some pockets of Gir,” the official said, adding that the towers would ease the use of e-tabs for real-time reporting from the field and CCTV surveillance, among other things.
However, wildlife experts have questioned any approval to the towers. Ramesh Rawal, who has authored books on lions, said: “Forest staff have walkie-talkies and the wireless network helps them stay connected. I don’t see these towers bringing additional benefits in wildlife protection and management.”
Rawal also expressed apprehension about the towers impacting the bird life of Gir.
A conservationist who did not want to be named said, “The lack of connectivity and communication for humans inside forest makes a forest a forest. In fact… availability of digital connectivity inside the forest will facilitate sharing of live locations and geo-tagged photographs. This can be misused by poachers.”
The forest department staff deployed at Gir were given e-tabs around two years ago for field work. Sources said work is on to install CCTV cameras at 24 entry and exit points, which would be connected to a server.
A retired forest officer who has served in Gir said the towers could always be set up in revenue areas. “Gir sanctuary is primarily for lions and other wild animals and birds, not for human settlements,” the ex-officer said. Indian Express