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| Last Updated:01/02/2019

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Centre sets up committee to decide if turtle sanctuary in Varanasi should be de-notified

The ministry of environment, forests and climate change (MoEFCC) has set up a committee to decide whether the Varanasi Turtle Sanctuary should be de-notified. It has also ordered a "third-party" evaluation of the sanctuary to determine whether it is of any importance. These decisions were taken at a meeting held with forest officials from Uttar Pradesh, officials from the National Mission for Clean Ganga on Wednesday at the ministry.


The meeting follows a recent office memorandum (OM) from the environment ministry which stated that the "PMO has desired" a strategy on the turtle sanctuary and safeguarding of the ghats in Varanasi. Senior officials of MoEFCC told TOI that a committee consisting of the Divisional Forest Officer, Varanasi, District Magistrate, Varanasi and officials from the National Mission for Clean Ganga (NMCG) has been formed "to look at an entire gamut of issues including how the turtle sanctuary was impacting the ghats and recommend what should be done about the sanctuary." Ironically, the turtle sanctuary was set up in 1989 under the Ganga action plan so that carnivorous turtles could help scavenge half burnt corpses and aid in cleaning the water.


The senior official added that a decision has also been taken to set up a permanent Ganga observatory but its role will be further defined in future meetings. Scientists from the Wildlife Institute of India (WII) present at the meeting submitted a number of studies and data on the turtle sanctuary and the need for it. In fact NMCG's own studies were also submitted to the participants of the meeting and additional secretary, MoEFCC, Amita Prasad. WII submitted that about 41,000 turtles have been released in the sanctuary since its inception.


While the MoEFCC claimed that the Varanasi district administration is concerned about "sedimentation" along the right bank of Ganga which increased the velocity of the river on the left bank and apparently made it vulnerable to erosion, Uttar Pradesh forest department officials told TOI that even documents with Ganga Flood Control department show no damage has been done to the ghats. MoEFCC officials maintained that the sanctuary was obstructing "development projects" near the ghats. "The importance of the sanctuary cannot be over-emphasized. But it is true that the sanctuary area is highly disturbed because of high number of vehicles and people gathering there. The forest department has no way to count the number of turtles in the flowing water. One technique is to capture the turtles mark them and recapture to count. That kind of a study has not been done yet," a forest official told TOI on condition of anonymity. Dr S A Hussain of WII who was present at the meeting said the "sanctuary is of great importance," but declined to elaborate because the matter was sensitive. Some experts said that the sanctuary is being seen to be an obstruction in making the stretch of the river navigable.


"Are turtles no longer agent of cleaning the river? Why this sudden discussion on de-notifying the sanctuary? It's true that the sanctuary area is extremely disturbed but if it's being de-notified, on which stretch of the Ganga will the sanctuary be relocated? There are discussions on making inland water ways which would mean dredging the riverbed which will decrease the shoreline. Most of the productivity of a river which is a living entity is along the shores. The government should consider a cost benefit analysis on this," said turtle biologist, BC Chowdhury adding that a serious study is needed before any decision to de-notify because turtles play a massive role in water cleaning.