Why has no Indian political party come out with a road map on afforestation?

If political parties choose to ignore addressing this important concern, NOTA may remain the only option for people like me

By Amandeep Aggarwal
Published: Thursday 09 May 2019
A rain forest. Photo: Getty Images

In the name of development, India's total forest cover has been reduced to 21.54 per cent (708,273 square kilometres) against the 33 per cent recommended in the National Forest Policy. Independent experts say even this figure “masks ground realities” of forest status by including commercial plantations and trees under its ambit. Decreasing forest cover and depleted wildlife is a matter of concern for everyone in India.

Some astonishing facts

The Lok Sabha election process is going on; all political parties are coming out with their set of tall claims and promises. Yet, it remains to be seen how many promises are fulfilled. But as a person concerned with the environment, I and people like me are wondering — why have none of the parties come out with concrete plans of forest revival? Is it not an issue that concerns all Indians?

Punjab, to which I belong to, tops the list from the bottom with a mere 3.52 per cent forest cover; its immediate neighbour Haryana is the first runner-up with a forest cover of 3.59 per cent.

Custodians of forests are busy building individual empires out of their official authority. The Union government disbursed a huge amount of money under the Green India Mission, launched in February 2014. In many parts of the country, officers of the concerned departments have usurped the sum by showing plantations of 2,500 trees per hectare in hilly areas. Such plantations are not technically feasible in hilly area as ridges have to be made.

For providing sanctions to projects, it is stated that forest areas are non-forest lands. For justifying increase in staff/ labour, even non forest areas are shown as forest lands.

Following orders from the Supreme Court of India, the Union government had constituted a body, CAMPA, to manage funds for afforestation to compensate deforestation done to give room for development projects. CAMPA funds meant for compensatory afforestation are being grossly misappropriated by the custodians themselves.

Environmental clearance for various projects is given by the government of India on certain conditions to ensure that development doesn’t tax the environment. But it has become a practice to violate these conditions and no one is bothered. Moreover, the permissions for development projects are still being given without bothering about compliance of conditions for environmental clearance in earlier sanctions.

Why is the government of India granting permissions for clearance of projects where none bothers for the environment? In the name of compliance, why is the buck passed to the contractor?

In 2001, Punjab ranked 11th in the country in terms of forest cover, with a forest cover of 2,432 sq km. The Union government had taken a loan of Rs 630 crore from a Japanese bank, with a promise that India would work towards improving its depleting forest cover. The loan had to be repaid in 20-30 years against an interest of 0.75 per cent to 1.8 per cent per annum.

A portion of the loan amounting to approximately Rs 470 crore was spent on planting about 96,000 trees along the Zirakpur-Bathinda stretch of National Highway 64 in Punjab. The state utilised resources to care for these plants.

However, when they became big trees by 2012, the state gave the nod to fell all trees. This, even as not a single penny of the loan had been repaid by then. All that investment has gone down the drain. 

Some unanswered questions

Governments have been claiming satisfactory afforestation over the years and a 95 per cent survival rate of the trees planted. Had it been true, forest cover wouldn't have come down to the level where it is at today. Does that mean that these figures of afforestation and the survival rate are fudged?

Why is the Union Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change silent over the depleted forest cover in many states?

Why is it still giving the go-ahead to all projects without bothering about compliance?

Why have none of the political parties come out with a concrete plan/ roadmap for reviving forest cover?

India’s political parties must come out with their roadmap for reviving forest cover and wildlife. If political parties choose to ignore addressing this important concern, NOTA may remain the only option for people like me.

Amandeep Aggarwal is chairman, action committee-cum-legal cell, Indian Medical Association, Punjab

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