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Apex court steps in, asks states for afforestation plans
THE bill that proposed centralized management of funds, collected in lieu of permission to divert forestland to non-forest uses, was defeated in the Rajya Sabha on February 25. Members of the house objected to the bill saying centralized forest fund management goes against the federal system in India.
It takes away financial powers vested with the states, the members said (see 'A blow for federalism', Down To Earth, April 30, 2008). The Compensatory Afforestation Management Fund Bill mandated the setting up of an independent Planning and Management Authority (campa) under the moef to collect and manage the forest funds. "The bill has been nullified and will have to be introduced again in the Lok Sabha, after the general elections," said an official of the Union ministry of environment and forests (moef).
The day the bill was being debated in the Rajya Sabha, the Supreme Court asked all state governments to submit proposals for using campa funds that are under the control of the ad hoc campa it set up. The funds collected for compensatory afforestation - about Rs 6000 crore--are lying idle with the ad hoc authority as the moef failed to give effect to campa after notifying it in 2004. There was no enabling legislation to back up campa. The bill was meant to overcome this shortcoming and would have helped moef take control of the funds.
The campa bill was mentioned in the Supreme Court on February 25 when amicus curae (friend of the court) Harish Salve pointed out the bill went against the apex court's orders that campa funds be used for compensatory afforestation. The moef proposed using the funds for other schemes also like the Green India Programme for afforesting wastelands.
The court observed it could not intervene until the bill becomes an act.
At the same time, the apex court decided to dispose of pending compensatory afforestation proposals that require campa fund. Twenty-three proposals are pending with the ministry. The states have been asked to send other proposals, if any, to the ad hoc campa. All proposals will be placed before the court in the second week of April. "We proposed the disbursal of funds through state level societies so that it can be used for compensatory afforestation. The court has asked the ministry and the states to respond," said Salve.
The Supreme Court move has been questioned by legal experts. They said this amounts to parallel governance. Rajiv Dhawan, senior Supreme Court advocate, said the fund with the ad hoc campa is illegal as it was collected on the directions of Supreme Court. The funds should be handed over to the government, he said. "The Court is the custodian of the of law; matters related to revenue and financial management lie with the government," said Dhawan. Another senior advocate, Sanjay Parikh, said the apex court has the jurisdiction to ask the government to collect money for environmental protection. "But it is for the government to decide how and where the money is spent," he said.
Conservationists however see a larger role for the apex court. They said court's intervention is necessary as the ministry is unable to protect forests.
The Parliament's standing committee on environment and forests had opposed the bill saying it should be scrapped. The committee, in its report in October 2008, suggested a forest and eco-development board in place of campa. But its recommendations were ignored when the Lok Sabha passed the bill on December 23, 2008. "To achieve compensatory afforestation, the funds should go back to the states. There is no need for legislation," said D Raja, a member of the committee.
Ministry officials do not agree. "The bill is partly in line with the court's direction on using campa funds," said Ansar Ahmed, inspector general forests, moef. He said routing funds to states through campa would increase the accountability of the states.