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Kanchi Kohli & Manju Menon: Forest clearance made sulabh

Kanchi Kohli & Manju Menon  |  New Delhi 

By using a purely economic or quantitative lens to scrutinise industrial activities which destroy nature, the forests bill ends up legitimising them.

The Parliamentary Standing Committee on Science and Technology, Environment and Forests is presently scrutinising a Bill which was introduced in parliament in May 2008. This Bill, titled, The Compensatory Afforestation Fund Bill, 2008, seeks to institutionalise a mechanism to collect and manage the money collected as payments made by project authorities whose projects — steel plants, highways, hydro-electric projects, ports and so on — necessitated diverting forest land for non-forest use. The procedure for diversion is done as per the Forest Conservation Act (FCA), 1980 by the Union Ministry of Environment and Forests (MoEF). Each time a clearance for diversion, popularly called Forest Clearance (FC) is granted, it is with certain conditions, one of them being compensatory afforestation in return of the forest lost.

The genesis of this Bill and what it proposes can be traced back to an ongoing case in the Supreme Court, also famous as the Godavarman (forest) case. Since 1996, several orders and judgments have been passed as part of this case which have a bearing on forest management in the country. Judicial activism has taken many dimensions, which include expanding the definition of forests from the administrative understanding of areas designated as forest lands to its dictionary meaning.

An order passed on September 26, 2005, in the Godavarman case raised a critical question. It asked whether a user agency (private company, PSU, government) should compensate for the diversion of forests and loss of benefits accruing from such a change of land use. Further, should not the user agency make a payment in the form of Net Present Value (NPV) of such diverted land which can be utilised in the long run to ‘get back the benefits’?

The next step after the court’s deliberations was the setting up of a Compensatory Afforestation Management and Planning Authority (CAMPA) in May 2006 which was to manage the funds received.

Now, two years later, the new Bill seeks to institutionalise this system to manage the huge amounts of money collected for the tasks of compensatory afforestation, additional compensatory afforestation, penal compensatory afforestation, NPV and all other amounts recovered under FCA. Approximately, Rs 5,000 crore has been the collection since CAMPA was set up.

Attaching a value to the loss or impacts on forests is very symptomatic of a hopeful economic superpower that thrives on monetising nature (it is almost always called natural resources now) and parceling out portions of it to development projects to use, pollute, blast, cut down, etc. While there may be different opinions on this, isn’t it at least necessary to review if the purpose of conservation, as is implicit by the title Forest (Conservation) Act, is being achieved at all? Is the forest clearance process or compensatory afforestation schemes, NPV etc resulting in a conservation-oriented decision making? Is monetary compensation a deterrent against large-scale destruction caused by the change of land use of a forest into a mine, an industry or a power-generation hub? Can the loss of an ecosystem and the severing of the cultural and spiritual association attached to it, and the myriad livelihoods supported by it, be valuated and compensated for? These questions may appear simple, but there are no direct answers.

There are many signs, though. These are of value only if we choose to interpret them. The quantum of forests lost in the last two decades is one such. From 1980 to 2006, the MoEF had granted permission for the diversion of 11,40,176 hectares of forest land for non-forest use. About 3,11,220 hectares have been diverted since 2003, a quarter of all clearances since 1980. At the present rates of loss, we are close to the deforestation rates before the enactment of the FCA. The very purpose of the law was to arrest loss of 1,50,000 hectares per annum between 1950 and 1980.

With projects having outlays of thousands of crores waiting to be cleared, a few hundred lakhs coughed up is unlikely to hurt. If anything, it eases the guilt of those who trample upon the customary rights of tribal or forest-dependent communities or destroy sensitive wildlife habitats. A more obscene but very likely scenario is that it could win them an award for being ‘environment friendly’! The highly controversial Niyamgiri bauxite mining judgment sets a figure of Rs 55 crore as NPV and Rs 50.53 crore towards a Wildlife Management Plan as the cost for the gouging out the innards of the sacred hill of the Dongria Kondh tribe and a unique biological landscape. Going by real evidence scattered throughout history, the money can neither recreate the landscape nor compensate the sense of loss of sanctuary by this tribal community.

The proposed Bill allows for penal compensation for activities in forests carried out without seeking approval as per law from the concerned regulatory authorities. This would be over and above compensatory afforestation. Does one need more to conclude that such an environmental regime is essentially fraudulent? It turns all activities that might have been unacceptable from a conservation perspective into legally permissible ones by scrutinising it from a purely economic or quantitative lens. It is even willing to condone legal forest violations in exchange for money. Cases pending in courts against habitual violators are loud signs of how anti-conservation these fines are.

And finally, where is this money headed? We’re afraid, only down a stinking drain. The money collected by the CAMPA will fund the Green India Programme, a massive afforestation exercise proposed to refoliate degraded forest lands. Before you jump to label us cynics, take a trip to any of the drought-prone states of Karnataka. They were to have been forested by crores borrowed from the Japanese government.

How many times must we go through these motions before we declare this system sick?

The authors are members, Kalpavriksh Environmental Action Group

First Published: Sun, September 14 2008. 00:00 IST