Economic growth by diversion
The Union Ministry of Environment is turning the NDA government’s commitment to business reforms into reality. In the last two years, 20,000-25,000 hectares of forest land have been diverted each year for commercial and developmental projects, according to Environment Minister Prakash Javadekar’s statement in the Rajya Sabha during the Budget session this year.
His latest announcement on May 16 informs us that 2,000 projects requiring environmental and forest clearances were given the go ahead, resulting in investments worth Rs 10 lakh crore. Javadekar justifies these approvals by stating that many of the projects had been pending since the tenure of the previous UPA government.
Earlier in May 2016, the Ministry of Environment announced that the period for granting project approvals had been reduced from 600 days to 190 days to ensure the “ease of doing responsible business”. Similarly, regional offices have been empowered to divert forest land below 40 hectares with states’ participation. Linear projects such as roads, rail, drinking water canal, irrigation water canal, transmission and laying pipe and cables of any size can be approved by the regional offices of the Union Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change (MoEFCC).
The Ministry lists the passing of the Compensatory Afforestation Fund Managment and Planning Authority (CAMPA) Bill by the Lok Sabha as one of its achievements. Introduced in the Parliament on May 8, 2015, the Bill proposes to establish National Compensatory Afforestation Fund (NCAF) under the public account of India, and a State Compensatory Afforestation Fund (SCAF) under the public account of each state. The Bill mandates NCAF to allocate 90 percent of the CAMPA funds received from the net present value (NPV) to the states to compensate for the loss of forest cover, regeneration of forest ecosystem, wildlife protection, and infrastructure development.
Experts are sceptical about the effectiveness of these new rules. According to a former member of National Board for Wildlife (NBWL) Kishore Rithe, even 10 percent of CAMPA funds presently granted to states for afforestation is not yielding results. “If 90 percent of funds are allocated to the state, the money should be put in fixed deposit and only interest should be spent on relocation of villages where forests have been diverted,” Rithe says.
The Comptroller and Auditor General (CAG) of India also found that against the receivable non-forest land of 103,381.91 hectares from 2006-12 for compensatory afforestation, only 28,086 hectares (27 percent) was received.
Actual compensatory afforestation over non-forest land received was 7,280.84 hectares or merely 7 percent of the requirement. Degraded forest lands also fared badly with only 49 percent of the required area being brought under afforestation, the CAG report states.
Rights of forest dwellers
Attempts are also underway to dilute the Forest Rights Act, 2006, threatening the rights allotted to Scheduled Tribes and other forest dwellers who traditionally depend on forests. States like Maharashtra and Madhya Pradesh are notifying their own rules to give the state forest department the power to decide on matters related to forest management.
This violates the Forest Rights Act, according to non-profits working on tribal rights, because it dilutes the powers of the village council and defeats the purpose of the Act. The Ministry of Tribal Affairs (MoTA), which had protested these developments, has now been silenced by Union Ministers Prakash Javadekar and Nitin Gadkari.
Growth in forest cover
Despite gaps in forest governance, the Ministry has a few achievements to boast of. Mangrove cover has increased by 100 sq km and forest and tree cover has increased by 5,081 sq km. According to the India State of Forest Report (ISFR) 2015, the total carbon stock in the country’s forests is estimated to be 7,044 million tonnes, registering an increase of 103 million tonnes over previous assessments.
The environment ministry must, however, note that India has also lost 2,511 sq km of prime forests, a situation that demands attention beyond the rapid granting of project clearances and easing the process for businesses alone.
(Views expressed are strictly those of Down to Earth.)