New Delhi: Diluting India’s forest rights law, the environment ministry has exempted infrastructure projects such as roads, canals, pipelines, optical fibres and transmission lines from requiring the consent of village councils for securing final forest clearances.
This follows complaints that many projects have failed to get off the ground because of delays in securing approvals.
The environment ministry’s mandate is to protect the environment and ensure sustainable development and not to impede economic development, environment minister Jayanthi Natarajan told reporters on Tuesday. “We are a partner in the development of the country and environment shouldn’t be considered a roadblock,” she said.
The forest rights law recognizes the rights of forest dwellers to conserve and manage community forest resources.
In projects falling in or passing through forest areas, developers had to obtain no-objection certificates from 51% of all the councils of villages to be affected by the projects to be able to get final forest clearance certificates from the environment ministry.
Natarajan said 101 projects were pending with her for clearance as of 30 January, but added there had been no undue delays in approving projects by her ministry.
“Out of these, very few have been delayed due to processing and a lot of them are pending because either the applications or proposals are incomplete,” Natarajan said.
The environment minister said her ministry had cleared 754 proposals for forest clearances in the last year-and-a-half out of 828 that were considered. The cleared projects involved diversion of 18,204 hectares of land for developmental purposes, she added.
Natarajan had been against allowing any concessions under the Forest Rights Act (FRA), but Prime Minister Manmohan Singh called a meeting last week to resolve the issue, said a top environment ministry official, requesting anonymity.
“Even though the environment minister was not ready to make concessions under FRA, the tribal affairs minister (V. Kishore Chandra Deo), whose ministry is the nodal ministry to implement this act, agreed to the concessions, so there was nothing that she could do,” this official said.
Many ministries have been blaming the environment ministry for blocking clearances. The National Highways Authority of India recently moved the Supreme Court to de-link environment and forest clearances for linear projects.
“We have issued 7-8 fresh orders to ensure that there is no delay in terms of processing,” Natarajan said on Tuesday.
In a related move, all categories of public roads involving less than 5 hectares of forest land in 82 Maoist insurgency-affected districts have been exempted from requiring forest clearances, according to an environment ministry circular issued on 1 February. This is in addition to rural roads that were already a part of 13 categories of infrastructure projects exempted from forest clearances in such districts.
Quarrying for materials to be used in laying such roads too don’t need forest clearances, the circular said.
Also, “up to 25% of expansion of coal mining projects can be applied for without going through the usual route” of obtaining clearances, Natarajan said. Mint reported this on 16 January.
“It has always been very difficult for individual project proponents to get FRA consent,” said Seema Arora, executive director (sustainability) at the Confederation of Indian Industry lobby group.
Following the latest concessions, “industry should act responsibly for linear projects and should use it as a demonstration and make a case of similar changes for other sectors”, she added.
Swathi Seshadri isn’t as appreciative of the decision, saying the government has been diluting the Forest Rights’ Act for some time now. “They are going on diluting FRA further and while they appear to formulate a tribal affairs act on one hand, they take it away with the other hand,” said Seshadri, programme co-ordinator at Equations, a non-profit organization that works on issues of tourism in forest areas and with tribals.
Natarajan said the government has also started parallel processing of environment and forest clearances. So, if a part of a road project falls in a forest area, the environment ministry will grant an environment clearance to it if the proponent can suggest an alternative alignment in case a forest clearance cannot be secured later. Forest clearances typically take longer than environment clearances to be granted.
Arora said this was a positive move. “There were inconsistencies in rules which have been corrected when things have been looked at a larger perspective,” she said.