New Delhi: In what may further delay the Congress party led United Progressive Alliance government’s rural electrification programme, the ministry of environment and forest (MoEF) has rejected exemptions for the diversion of forest land for rural electrification projects.
The power ministry is overseeing the programme known as the Rajiv Gandhi Grameen Vidyutikaran Yojana (RGGVY), which is part of India’s ambitious Bharat Nirman project to develop rural infrastructure at an initial project cost of Rs1.76 trillion.
The power ministry sought the exemption of the programme from obtaining clearance under the Forest (Conservation) Act, 1980, because of its social upliftment aspect. According to information posted on the MoEF website, the forest advisory committee (FAC) “expressed its inability to exempt the social welfare schemes, such as RGGVY, from obtaining forest clearance”.
The issue underscores the conflict that Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s government needs to resolve between its stated aim of inclusive growth for all sections and the need to protect the environment.
FAC is a body constituted under the Act to regulate diversion of such land for non-forestry purposes. The diversion or de-reservation of forest land for such purposes requires approval of the Union government under Section 2 of the Act. “The idea of a blanket permission is problematic. There are many remote areas and isolated habitations, and lines connecting them to the grid would go through ecologically sensitive areas with rich biodiversity,” said K. Ulhas Karanth, an FAC member. “Even though rural roads and power lines sound benign, they can fragment habitats. The role of FAC is not to promote development but to exercise caution.”
The rural electrification programme was launched in April 2005 to provide electricity connections to 23 million poor households in 150,000 villages by 2009. Of this, 125,000 villages were to be electrified by the Central power ministry and 25,000 villages by the ministry of new and renewable energy. However, only 8.9 million families have been given power connections in 69,000 villages so far.
“Work is going slow on the scheme,” said a power ministry official who did not want to be identified. “The main problem with regard to forest land is coming in Jharkhand as they have declared a large tract as forest land. We will try again.”
Jharkhand has a target of providing electricity to 1.69 million poor households in 19,700 villages. Of these, 0.7 million families have been given power connections in 10,600 villages so far.
Mint had reported on 25 February about the scheme facing trouble in states hit by Maoist insurgency such as Jharkhand, Bihar, Orissa and Madhya Pradesh.
Forest clearances are among the hindrances to the project but not the biggest, according to Girish Sant, coordinator, Prayas Energy Group, a Pune-based NGO on energy.
“There are major issues with sub-contractors claiming that work has been completed when it hasn’t been,” he said. Still, some transparency has come about “after it was mandated that all work done has to be shared online”.
Concerned with the slow progress of the scheme, the Prime Minister’s Office has set a deadline of electrifying 100,000 villages and 17.5 million below poverty line families by March 2012.
Union power minister Sushil Kumar Shinde had earlier admitted to Mint that the programme was facing problems.
“The overall target of providing electricity can only be achieved by March 2013,” said the power ministry official cited earlier.
The scheme has a total outlay of Rs36,000 crore, of which 10% will have to be borne by the respective state governments through loans given by the Rural Electrification Corporation; of this, around Rs15,000 crore has already been spent.