Home >Opinion >Columns >Opinion | Why project nods in green belts need greater scrutiny

The agenda for the 27 June meeting of the Forest Advisory Committee (FAC) is a busy one, but there’s more at stake than merely a yes-no-maybe to various projects. At stake is the overall approach of FAC’s parent ministry— Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change.

FAC would consider an application from Sarda Mines Pvt. Ltd to begin mining iron ore in 617 hectares in and around Thakurani Reserve Forest in Odisha’s Keonjhar district, for which a little over 865 hectares have already been “diverted" by changing the “purpose" of land use. Hindustan Oil Exploration Co. Ltd has sought 200 hectares in Changlang district of Arunachal Pradesh for a “petroleum mining lease".

Elsewhere in Changlang—a hotbed of militant activity and ongoing counter-insurgency operations—is located Oil India Ltd’s request to allocate a massive 7,500 hectares, over 75 sq. km (or over 18,500 acres) of forest, also for a petroleum mining lease. Calcom Cement India Ltd applied for open cast mining of limestone in a little over 425 hectares of forest in Assam’s Dima Hasao district.

Beyond the troubling matter of seeking to conduct business in zones of ongoing conflict and conflict-prone areas, lies attitude. For instance, there is the deliberate mention in the agenda of Hindustan Oil seeking 200 hectares “out of 1,645 hectares" of forest in a particular area, as if to highlight that 12% of the available forest isn’t much to quibble about. Such structured wording for a request has long been the hallmark of presentations at FAC meetings in particular and to the environment ministry in general.

But the future really lies in the new government’s environment ministry clarifying the intention of the government’s principal entity, the Bharatiya Janata Party. In its campaign promise, for instance, the party announced: “We have ensured speed and effectiveness in issuing forest and environmental clearances for eligible projects due to which we have added around 9,000 sq. km to the forest cover of the country.’’ It added: “We are committed to maintaining this pace through adoption of cleaner practises to make our nation a greener country."

In effect, the more clearances are given to cut forests, the more forests India will have. Presumably, through paperwork that mandates what is called compensatory afforestation, to offset a piece of forest with planting a similar area, elsewhere, with trees. Or to plant twice the area, near or far. Besides the oversimplification implicit in what is an intensely bureaucratic way to care for the environment, it’s a bit like a former CEO of a major Goa-based mining firm once announcing that mining is environmentally friendly. If such logic attends PARIVESH, or Pro Active and Response Facilitation by Interactive, Virtuous and Environmental Single Window Hub, which the ministry has adopted as its mantra, it would send out signals quite unvirtuous towards the environment. While some clearances are sought under provisions of the Forest (Conservation) Act, 1980, some implications carry forward from the paperwork. Such as displacing people twice over (besides loss of the initial forest cover): once on account of those who may live in and around forests; and second, those whose lands are acquired to provide such “compensation" to the environment. As pointed out in a fine series of discussions in Mint in mid-June, over the proposal to amend the Indian Forest Act, 1927—which seeks to provide near-untrammelled powers to forest guards, potentially setting up conflicts with residents of a sort that have for decades fed the Maoist rebellion—there is much for the ministry to reconcile.

There’s also the matter of oversight. The Comptroller and Auditor General has pointed to the lax monitoring of “diverted" forest land. On 10 April 2018, the Supreme Court hauled up the ministry and states for not using a staggering 90,000 crore of funds collected by the Compensatory Afforestation Fund Management and Planning Authority (CAMPA). More precisely, for using CAMPA funds for other programmes. The new ministry would do well to articulate its direction.

This column focuses on conflict situations and the convergence of businesses and human rights and runs on Thursdays.

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