The Compensatory Afforestation Fund Act (CAF Act), 2016 has raised serious concerns about the human and environmental costs of compensatory afforestation (CA). Mounting evidence establishes that CA plantations destroy natural forests, harm biodiversity, undermine the rights and nutrition of local communities, and disguise rampant misuse of public funds. By allocating more than Rs50,000 crore, the Act enables the forest bureaucracy to entrench its control over forests and subvert democratic forest governance established by the Forest Rights Act (FRA), 2006 and Panchayats (Extension to Schedule Areas) Act (Pesa), 1996. Such human and environmental costs are set to aggravate further unless the model of CA is overhauled.

A macro-analysis of 2,548 plantations, and case studies of 63 CA plantation sites in Odisha, Jharkhand, Maharashtra and Chhattisgarh, by forest rights group Community Forest Rights—Learning and Advocacy (CFR-LA) reveals that 60% of these are monocultural commercial plantations, sometimes set up in the name of “forests". These plantations have been carried out over forest lands both claimed and titled under the FRA, and even over dense natural forests. The consent of these communities has not been sought, violating their legal rights and leading to livelihood distress.

During its enactment, the Union environment, forest and climate change minister at the time assured Parliament that the CAF rules would address concerns regarding FRA and the role of gram sabhas. The draft rules recently released by the ministry are far removed from the assurance, and add a stamp of approval to existing land and forest rights violations. During the winter session of Parliament, members of Parliament (MPs) from both Houses, across party lines, questioned the rights violations, misuse of CA funds and the status of the rules. The government is now non-committal on its earlier assurance to address FRA-related concerns. In response to a question on whether plantations done on forest lands were undertaken with the consent of the relevant gram sabhas, the state minister of the ministry of environment, forest and climate change (MoEFCC) stated that:

“(C)ompensatory afforestation on the government forest is done as per the working plans prescriptions of the government forest prepared as per working plan code approved by the Ministry. Concerns of tribal people and forest dwellers as per Forest Rights Act are incorporated in the working plan prescriptions."

At least half the lands claimed as “government forest" are forests belonging to communities under the FRA. The working plans have nothing to do with obtaining the consent of gram sabhas, but lay down the forest department’s proposals for forest management. Separately, the ministry of tribal affairs (MoTA) makes a hollow claim that CA cannot be undertaken on forests covered by the FRA. It has not intervened with the MoEFCC to defend the FRA, and has allowed it to issue guidelines for creating land banks for CA out of revenue forest-lands and degraded forests on which people have recorded rights.

The Act lacks a mechanism to monitor expenditure of funds, despite the comptroller and auditor general (CAG) report, 2013 finding massive misutilization by the forest department (FD). Presumably, this prompted the finance ministry to object to the direct disbursal of funds through the public fund. The amicus curiae in the ongoing Godavarman case has questioned the continuing disbursal through the ad-hoc mechanism despite the enactment of the CAF Act.

How do we move forward from this complicated logjam between the wide range of stakeholders? A petition to Parliament, sent by forest rights groups and endorsed by MPs, shows the way. It proposes the repeal of, or amendments to, the CAF Act, adopting a framework of democratic forest governance as per the FRA as the principal approach for the governance of CA. It is well-established that communities are the best stewards for the governance and conservation of forests. Forest Survey of India reports show that forest cover in tribal districts, constituting 60% of the country’s total forest cover, bucked the national trend and increased by 3,211 sq. km over 2001-03. In Odisha alone, more than 12,000 self-initiated forest protection groups (known as CFM groups) cover more than 2 million hectares of forest. These community-led initiatives have successfully regenerated forests by adopting sustainable- use practices, regeneration through traditional knowledge of forests and species, guarding and penalizing poachers, among others.

The government needs to look no further than the FRA to reorient the current CA approach and meet its goals of ecological restoration. As MoTA stated in Parliament, Sections 3(1)(i) and Section 5 already vest the right and authority for governance of forests in the gram sabha. This covers at least 35 million hectares, more than 50% of the recorded forests in India. Yet, the radical potential of FRA is stymied by a lack of political will, issuing formal recognition to a mere 3% of claims, and marginalizing gram sabhas from decision making. The CAF Act needs to be integrated with the FRA and Pesa by centring the role of gram sabhas and incorporating land and forest rights guarantees. The political class must show the will and take bold steps to review this unjust and ineffective law, implement the FRA in letter and spirit, and promote community-led conservation initiatives.

Tushar Dash, Sanghamitra Dubey and Radhika Chitkara are researchers on natural resource governance, and members of the nationwide Community Forest Rights—Learning and Advocacy process.

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