New Delhi: Recommendations by a ministry of environment and forests (MoEF) panel to make clearances even more stringent could see a large swathe of the country’s land mass excluded from any commercial activity, setting the stage for an escalation in the conflict between those who see economic development as key to growth and those who see ecological preservation as more important.
If the report of the Committee to Formulate Objective Parameters for Identification of Inviolate Areas is accepted without changes, the ministry will also lose its own discretionary powers.
The “entire coastal line, the north-eastern area and the Himalayan areas may be classified as inviolate areas, and hence become out of bounds for various developmental activities like mining”, said a senior government official who requested anonymity. Alumina-rich areas will be severely affected since they are in areas rich in biodiversity, the person said.
The ministry had suggested “inviolate” areas in place of what are now called “no-go” areas. Such “go” and “no-go” areas were at the core of intra-ministerial disputes over several developmental projects getting stalled over green approvals.
Mint had reported on 9 July that MoEF will replace its current classification of forest areas as “go, no-go” with “violate” and “inviolate” areas. Though the report was prepared in July last year, it’s only now that it has been made public to invite suggestions and comments before it is finalized by the ministry.
The report says that while inviolate areas will be identified on the basis of parameters including the type of forest, biological richness of the area, wildlife value and hydrological value, among others, the main differentiating factor will be that inviolate areas will now be legal entities, which was not the case with no-go areas.
The report says that “MoEF will finalize the list and maps of inviolate areas in each state/UT (Union territory) and will notify them under the Environment (Protection) Act, 1986”.
“We are expecting that the inviolate areas might be same as the ‘no-go’ areas identified previously, but the main distinction is that these inviolate areas will now be legal entities which will make it difficult to bypass the classification and grant forest clearances for projects in those areas,” said another government official, who didn’t want to be identified.
Former environment minister Jairam Ramesh had to give in to pressure to grant forest clearance to Steel Authority of India Ltd for mining iron ore from the Chiria reserves in Jharkhand in 2011, even though Chiria had been demarcated as a “no-go” area. He had justified the decision by saying that he, as the minister, had used his discretionary powers.
Special cases like these and granting forest clearances in inviolate areas could become a problem as they will become legal entities, the first official cited above said, adding, “The ‘no-go’ classification was a bit arbitrary and we could consider projects on a case-to-case basis. The classification wasn’t binding on us and we could allow projects to go ahead with some riders like mitigation measures, but that will not be the case now.”
Infrastructure ministries, including the coal ministry, had disputed the “no-go” classification as they considered it unscientific.
“But that can’t be the case anymore,” said P.J. Dilip Kumar, former director general of forests at the environment ministry. “Since inviolate areas are identified on a scientific basis, the screening process will become more rigorous for all projects. The environment ministry will also have to make a list of the kind of industries it will allow and not allow in these areas.”
The report says all the protected areas, which occupy 4.9% of total geographical area, will be treated as inviolate. It goes on to add that the six parameters identified will be scored on a scale of 0-100 each. The country will be divided into 1km x 1km grids and for each grid, scores based on the parameters will be given. “Based on the threshold average score, each grid would be assigned the attribute of ‘inviolate’ as necessary,” it adds.
All the grids falling in national parks and wildlife sanctuaries, areas within 1km of protected areas, and compact patches of very dense forests, among others, will be considered inviolate. “Grid whose average score exceeds 70 (out of 100) shall also be labelled as inviolate,” the report says.
The report has a special provision for mining blocks and says that “mining blocks shall be considered inviolate if a majority of grids falling within a block have been labelled as inviolate”.
Ashish Fernandes, senior campaigner at Greenpeace, welcomed the proposals. “The current situation is that there is bargaining between ministries and no area is considered sacrosanct. Under ‘no-go’, flouting of rules did happen, and we hope that this will stop,” he said.
Fernandes said that while forest and biological parameters had been taken into account, tribals and forest dwellers had not been considered.
Making processes transparent always works, said Seema Arora, executive director (sustainability) at the Confederation of Indian Industry lobby group.
“It is better to know which areas are inviolate beforehand rather than after investments have been planned and companies have identified areas. If an area is a legal entity, then it is clear to everybody and clarity is better as then long-term plans can be made,” she said.