The environment ministry has restored the right to appeal against forest clearances given to linear projects after a rebuke from the National Green Tribunal (NGT). The ministry had earlier made it practically impossible for anyone to legally challenge such clearances in time to stop felling of trees in the forest lands diverted for infrastructure projects.
Prodded by an order of the National Green Tribunal, the Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change has issued fresh guidelines for awarding forest clearance for 'linear projects' under the Forest Conservation Act, 1980, reversing its previous orders of August 2014 and January 2015. The NGT had found these orders violative of the law and the right of aggrieved parties to appeal against the decisions of the ministry.
Linear projects include the laying of new roads, canals, railway lines, widening of highways and setting up of transmission lines. As for other projects, the forest clearance is given in two stages. In the initial stage, the government usually agrees in principle to provide forest lands once the the project is set to meet the scheduled conditions. Once these conditions are met, the stage two clearance is given, after which the project developer is permitted to clear the forests and start work. An aggrieved party is also permitted to file an appeal against the ministry's orders only after the stage two clearance has been granted.
However, in the case of linear projects, the ministry decided in August 2014 that project developers could clear the forests after securing only the stage one clearance. But aggrieved parties could file an appeal against this only when the stage two clearance was granted. In effect, clearing of forest lands could be carried out with no legal recourse being available to anyone against such an action.
NGT took a serious view of the matter after Milind Pariwakam, a wildlife biologist, filed an application arguing that this relaxation by the ministry was in violation of the Forest Conservation Act. He contended that the law did not recognise an 'in-principle approval' and strictly banned any felling of trees or construction before the final forest clearance was awarded.
While the tribunal considered whether the orders of the ministry were in violation of the law and whether they had adversely affected the right of appeal of an aggrieved person under Section 16 of the National Green Tribunal Act, the ministry admitted during the hearings that its orders fell foul of the law and that in January 2015, it had passed a new order fixing the legal error in its earlier direction. However, NGT was not entirely satisfied with the amended order because it did not entirely restore the right to appeal against the forest clearance orders, forcing the ministry to put out a third order on May 7.
The fresh guidelines of the ministry clarify that 'in principle' approval for a linear project would be deemed as a work permit. The permission to chop down the forests will be given only after all the compensatory levies, including transfer and mutation of non-forest/revenue land in favour of the forest department of the state concerned, have been provided. It further said that such an order would be "appealable". With these orders, the ministry has restored the original legal option of an appeal being filed at any point, including before tree felling has actually started.