Forest cover of India is just 21 per cent against the target of 33 per cent set by Planning Commission for 2012
The Public Accounts Committee of Parliament has castigated the Union Ministry of Environment and Forests (MoEF) for failing in its mandate to protect the environment of the country. In a report presented to the Lok Sabha on April 27, the committee has highlighted serious shortcomings in the implementation of environment protection programmes and in the functioning of various institutions under the ministry that are working on afforestation, biodiversity conservation, pollution control and environmental education.
The report highlighted the poor completion rate of projects under various schemes of the ministry. What's more, there is little assurance that funds released were utilised for the purpose for which they were sanctioned, the report said. The report pointed out that between 2003 and 2008, a total of 647 projects of afforestation costing Rs 59.48 crore were sanctioned by the National Afforestation and Eco-Development Board (NAEB) of the ministry. Out of this, only 20 projects could be completed and only 5.65 per cent of the total Rs 47.03 crore released for all the projects were spent on these completed projects. In the rest of the cases, the voluntary agencies supposed to execute the projects vanished after receiving either the first or the second installment.
Loot in the name of afforestation
Seven defaulting agencies were blacklisted and booked by the ministry by filing police FIRs, but only one errant officer was booked. “The Committee (members) are shocked that public money was looted in the name of afforestation and little tangible effort was made by the government to book the defaulters,” the report said. The committee pulled up the ministry for the shoddy job done in afforestation. The Planning Commission, in 2001, had fixed the target of increasing the forest/tree cover in India to 33 per cent by 2012. But according to the latest forest Survey of India report, the forest cover of the country is just 21 per cent.
On being asked why the target could not be met, the ministry defended itself by the telling the committee that prior to 2005, no target was set for tree plantation and the scheme of afforestation was “demand driven”, though the phrase as such “was not recorded in the files”. The committee said the implementation of the national programme of afforestation cannot be left solely to the voluntary agencies/NGOs and that all the departments and agencies of the Union as well as the state governments and Panchayati Raj institutions need to be involved effectively to achieve the desired target. It recommended that as in the case of Prime Minister's Gramin Sadak Yojna, there should be a third party monitoring of the afforestation programme, which should include geo-reference-based verification of afforestation with satellite mapping.
The report of the PAC is based on the audit of the transactions and performance of the ministry by the Comptroller and Auditor General (CAG) of India for the year 2008-09. The audit was done by CAG to create awareness and urgency about conservation and protection of the environment. Its report was tabled in the Lok Sabha in November 2010. The PAC then scrutinised the audit report and obtained written replies and oral depositions from the ministry.
On the biodiversity conservation front, too, the ministry has failed to deliver. With more than 45,500 plant species and 91,000 animal species, India is one of the 17 identified mega biodiversity hot spots in the world. The National Biodiversity Authority (NBA), through its regional biodiversity management committees was supposed to prepare people's biodiversity registers (PBRs) in consultation with local people with a view to compiling comprehensive information on availability and knowledge of local biological resources.
PAC noted that as against the 14,000 PBRs required to be maintained, only 1,121 registers had been documented by October, 2011. “The Committee (members) are anguished to note that precious, diverse species have been taken away by unscrupulous foreign scientists, botanists and businessmen, causing incalculable damage to India's biodiversity and irretrievable loss to the national exchequer. The Committee (members) are saddened to note the pathetic performance of NBA as even after six years of its formation, it failed to notify important regulations like access to biodiversity, transfer of research results and intellectual property rights, recruit or hire adequate number of taxonomists and set up a regular legal cell,” said the PAC report.
PAC noted that the ministry had no information regarding the grant of intellectual property rights outside India on many biological resources obtained from India and recommended that NBA should urgently set up a monitoring cell to keep track of this and also set up a regular legal cell to assist it. The committee also said that the Botanical Survey of India was not effective in meeting its objectives of meeting the provisions of the Convention on Biological Diversity due to gross inadequacy in documentation and monitoring of plant species. No survey of different ethnic groups associated with usage of plant species for different purposes has been done by BSI after 1990. The committee said BSI body was hamstrung by serious financial shortages, infrastructure and dearth of manpower, especially taxonomists, and recommended various majors to overhaul the defunct agency.
Irregularities in Eco-city Programme
The PAC found startling irregularities in the Rs 30 crore Eco-city Programme of the Central Pollution Control Board (CPCB). The programme was implemented during the 10th Five Year Plan period (2002-2007) to improve the environment of twelve select cities of historical and cultural significance. PAC noted that the funds were released for the project in violation of prescribed financial procedure or without approval of the detailed project reports and even when there were reports of unsatisfactory implementation. In several instances the unspent sums of money were not returned and the accrued interest was not disclosed by some state pollution control boards, said PAC. “The Committee therefore urges the government to ascertain the reasons for such slackness on the part of CPCB and also to revisit the Eco-city Programme for effective and speedy implementation and to apprise them in due course,” PAC noted.
National museum history in a shambles
On the environment education front, the committee said it was startled to note the audit findings related to the functioning of National Museum of Natural History (NMNH) vis-à-vis its objectives. The museum was established in 1978 in New Delhi to depict India's rich diversity of flora, fauna and mineral wealth and to promote environmental awareness among the masses. The committee said it was saddened to note that the museum was defunct and in a dilapidated condition and that it would be a mockery to call it a national museum worthy of national and international acclaim.
NMNH did not have any consultation with National Council of Educational Research and Training for the development of curriculum for standardising environment education, no audio-visual aids were developed for environmental education during 2004-2009 and no school loan kits were developed after 1986. The exhibits remained the same for decades and do not depict current environmental concerns like global warming, deforestation, pollution control, sustainable development, utilisation of solar energy, rain water harvesting and depletion of ozone layer, the committee said.
The panel recommended the government set up a panel of eminent museologists, environmentalists and educationists to revisit the concept of NMNH. Taking cue from the National Science Museum and the Parliament Museum, both in Delhi, a permanent state-of-the-art, first rate natural history museum should be set up, equipped with interactive story-telling system and sound-light-video animation, the PAC said.