Does the monsoon this year means forests for India?

The Compensatory Afforestation Fund Bill 2015 has crossed the doors of the Lok Sabha, but is set to face the Rajya Sabha test during the monsoon session. It needs to be seen if it will promise what it has not promised yet

The much-awaited Compensatory Afforestation Fund (CAF) Bill 2015, which will unlock about Rs 42,000 crore for forestry activities in India, has been passed by the Lok Sabha (lower house) of India’s Parliament. Now, the Rajya Sabha (Upper house) needs to pass this Bill before it becomes an Act. The Bill has missed the Budget session in the Rajya Sabha and will now be discussed in the monsoon session this year.

Passing the Bill in the Lok Sabha was the easier step as the ruling National Democratic Alliance (NDA) government has a clear majority there. But the real test lies in the Rajya Sabha where the NDA lacks a majority. Already, opposing political parties like the Congress, the Communist Party of India (Marxist), the Janata Dal (United) and the Trinamool Congress are contemplating amendments to the Bill. They want the Bill to be more in line with the Forest Rights Act, 2006 and make the taking of consent of gram sabhas before afforestation essential. But these proposed amendments will not solve all the problems this Bill has.

The CAF Bill still has many other shortcomings that need further amendments before it is passed by the Rajya Sabha. The Parliamentary Standing Committee on Science and Technology, Environment and Forests (PSC) had noticed many such shortcomings and had submitted to Parliament its recommendations in the form of its 277th report on the CAF Bill in February, 2015. But, the ruling government has accepted only minor recommendations from the PSC report and has ignored bigger ones such as reducing Central share from 10 per cent to 5 per cent or prohibiting the use of CAF for the Green India programme. Ignoring these important recommendations will lead to a gross misuse of CAFs which are mainly meant for compensating forest losses.

Some of the other grey areas which the amended Bill has again failed to address are prescription of using CAF for investment, lack of periodicity for revision of net present value (NPV) of diverted forests, lack of community involvement in CAF management and afforestation activities, no social or environmental audit process for plantations, lack of a scientific monitoring system at state or local levels, no fund allocation for monitoring survival of planted stock, no capping on forest diversions where non-forest or degraded forests are unavailable for compensatory afforestation, etc. All such loopholes can lead to the misuse of CAF and large-scale forest corruption in India, making the legislation ineffective in addressing the green imperatives of the country.

From an ecological perspective, natural forests are complex ecosystems and once cut, cannot be compensated entirely, at least for centuries. Despite this fact, India’s pristine forests continue to be diverted for industries and development on the pretext of compensatory afforestation, leaving the forest-dependent communities high and dry. Even after enactment of the Forest (Conservation) Act, 1980, which envisaged controlling forest diversions, the government has diverted over 1.3 million hectares of forests.

While a complete ban on forest diversion is difficult as the Indian economy is an unstoppable juggernaut now, the government can use the CAF Bill opportunity to develop healthy forest compensatory mechanisms. The current Bill lacks this in toto. The Bill needs further amendments to base it more on the principles of healthy forest regeneration and equitable benefit-sharing between the government and the local communities.

The CAF Bill has immense potential of transforming Indian forestry. But this transformation will be possible only if it incorporates necessary changes and is implemented in the right manner later. Given the huge financial resource it contains, it should be used to design an integrated long-term national forest strategy which benefits forests as well as people.

The CAF Bill should also be used for diversifying livelihood options for local people, strengthening eco-sensitive zones and promoting community conservation initiatives. CAF money must be used with essential participation of forest-dependent communities in afforestation activities. This will strengthen forest democracy in India, which is presently lacking despite the government’s tall claims about the success of the Joint Forest Management programme or Social Forestry. The Rajya Sabha must ensure that the Bill is improved significantly before it says ‘AYE’ in the monsoon session.

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