By mid-May, clearances for industry and infrastructure development amounting to 830,000 hectares of forests remain pending with the Centre and state governments. Some of these date back more than a decade. Some ask for more than 50,000 hectares for oil exploration and several for plots as tiny as 0.1 hectare.
But, contrary to what the figures suggest, the United Progressive Alliance was generous in handing over forests. It opened up an unprecedented 702,000 hectares - nearly five times the size of Delhi - of forests to industry. In comparison, forest land given away between 1980 and 2004 adds up to only 1.29 million hectares.
Yet industry cries foul over delays. It wants the Narendra Modi government to ease rules. Acquiring forest land involves four laws: the Indian Forest Act, 1927, the Forest Conservation Act, 1980, the new land acquisition legislation and the Forest Rights Act, 2006. The failure to make them collectively coherent promises to be the biggest headache for the next government.
Forest clearances are a lengthy process. Till recently, files moving between the state and the Centre could take years. Even impossible cases could be kept in abeyance for years to be revived when politically expedient - land for coal blocks being an example. This changed when the environment ministry on March 14 set a deadline for each clearance.
Eventually, almost all large projects and most small ones got forest land, at least on paper. In the 10 years of the UPA government 1,286 projects, adding up to 44,334 hectares, were rejected or closed permanently.
While the government cleared projects at a rate that did not satisfy industry, litigation and protests saw an upsurge. Vedanta, Polavaram and Posco are the most prominent among hundreds of proposals in the litigation-protest pipeline.
"There is an increase in the number of cases with respect to forest clearance and violations," said Ritwick Dutta, a prominent environmental lawyer. "However my estimate is that not more than 2 per cent of the total projects approved are legally challenged."
But, industry has often found that while it may get plans cleared from governments, it is harder to take clean possession of forest land. "The law requires the project proponent to identify and acquire land, then transfer it to the state, and deposit money that afforestation would cost. Land is a state subject and its acquisition varies across states. The new regime should create land banks for this," said Seema Arora, executive director of the Confederation of Indian Industry. The multiplicity of regulations is a factor not considered while appraising forest clearances, but comes into play when companies want to take possession of lands.
Take the case of Posco. The Prime Minister's office, the international investing community, several ministers and the Odisha government could not prevail upon a few villages growing betel vines on the site to make way for the largest FDI project in the country.
The appraisal system for forest clearances still do not ensure consultation with the people living off them. The Forest Conservation Act, 1980, requires the government to engage only with the project developers. The first recourse to appeal lies before the judiciary, that too on environmental grounds. With courts taking upon themselves to balance the 'growth' versus 'environment' debate instead of adjudicating on law many have begun preferring protest to turn the political tide against projects.
Yet a long delayed hunt for the forest patch remains worth the investment. Either it is the only place one can find the coal or iron ore. Or, it is far cheaper than buying revenue lands. Once they have it, there is little to hold back developers wishing to break conditions it was given under. Monitoring is all but absent. It has taken the Supreme Court to get some action taken against miners who illegally dug up thousands of hectares of forest land for decades in Goa, Karnataka and Odisha.
For the next government, if the mad rush for forest land and increasing court cases are not enough to handle, there is now a bigger challenge ahead: how to reconcile the new land acquisition and forest rights laws with the earlier ones.
5,214 project proposals = 840,000 hectares
Projects cleared by UPA I and II:
10,655 proposals = 702,000 hectares
Rejection rate during UPA I and II for projects requiring forest land:
6.32% (on basis of area)
stage-1 clearance WHO OWNS THE FORESTS?
- A large percentage of forest land in India belongs to the government (some parts of northeast India make an exception)
- Government records show that 350-400 million people today depend directly on forests for their livelihood and they live in about 173,000 villages located in and around forests in India
- Planning Commission estimates a monetised annual forest economy of Rs 50,000 crore.
- Yet, people, especially tribals, do not have any recorded right in the forests. Hundreds of thousands of these families are termed as encroachers on government land and thousands of others are booked for petty crimes under forest laws across the country
- The forest bureaucracy is practically the landlord for 21.05% of the geographical area of the country. When handing over forests, the Forest Conservation Act, 1980, does not require them to take these factors into account
- Apply to the state government. A file moves from the field up to the state government and then to the Union environment ministry for clearance
- If the patch of forest is less than four hectares then the state can decide
- If it is above 50 hectares but less than 100 hectares a regional officer of the Union environment ministry decides
- Above 100 hectares, senior forest officers sitting as members of the Forest Advisory Committee recommend to the environment minister what projects to clear. The minister takes the final call on giving the forest clearance
- If the land is close to or inside a declared wildlife zone, the project requires a wildlife clearance as well