First time ever, communities' compensation demand for forest diversion finds approval

The communities in Maharashtra affected by diversion of forests due to a transmission project may get the compensation they have demanded

By Shruti Agarwal
Published: Monday 28 November 2016
Lavari was one of the villages protesting against the 765-KV transmission line of Power Grid Corporation of India Ltd. Credit: Mark Bold / Flicker

On October 28, 2016, the District Level Committee (DLC) in Gadchirolli, Maharashtra took a landmark decision to compensate villages losing trees of Minor Forest Produce (MFP) species to a transmission line project. This is perhaps the first time ever that communities affected by diversion of forests for non-forestry projects would be compensated for loss of livelihoods from the felling of trees valued by them.

Lavari was one of the villages protesting against the 765 KV transmission line of Power Grid Corporation of India Ltd (PGCIL) from Raipur to Wardha. PGCIL’s project required 1,675 trees of MFP species like Mahua, Amla, Behera, Tendu, Hirda, to be felled. These trees are a part of the Community Forest Resource (CFR) of Lavari’s gram sabha, over which the gram sabha has rights of both collection and sale of MFP as well as protection and management of its forests, provided under the Forest Rights Act of 2006.

On June 13, 2016, Lavari had listed the MFP trees which would fall along the length and breadth of the proposed transmission line. The number was 1,675. The loss in income from these trees was calculated to be Rs 553,600 in one year. The figure amounted to Rs 1.11 crores for 20 years, which is how long it would take for the felled trees to grow back to the size, to be able to harvest their produce once again. Lavari had stalled the construction of the transmission line demanding that this amount be deposited into the bank account of its Gram Sabha.

The DLCs have been constituted in states for the implementation of the FRA. The Gadchirolli DLC meeting recorded the findings of the Gram Sabha and ordered the PGCIL to pay Rs 1.11 crores as compensation to the Gram Sabhas affected by the transmission line within the next 15 days. The meeting was chaired by the district collector and attended by officials from the forest department, revenue department and members from PGCIL.

Rahul, a member of the Van Sahniyantaran Samiti of Lavari Gram Sabha, is ecstatic. The village has decided to use the compensation amount for planting bamboo and other trees of MFP species in the 563 hectares of its CFR. “We also want to use a small part of the funds for starting a newspaper service to our village”, said Rahul. However, questions on the legislative soundness of the DLC’s decision are yet to be answered.

“The DLC’s decision has been communicated to the state forest minister, who has forwarded it to the Ministry of Environment, Forest & Climate Change (MoEF&CC) and the Ministry of Tribal Affairs. We are awaiting their instructions for further action on the decision”, said a senior forest official from Wadsa Forest Division. Currently, there are no guidelines providing for such compensation to communities in cases of forest diversion.

Putting Lavari’s demand into context

Having said that, the DLC’s decision has previously found support in recommendations for utilisation of Net Present Value (NPV) funds realised from user agencies seeking forest diversion. Compensation to communities for loss of livelihood from forest diversion was proposed previously, but never brought under the legal ambit. In 2005, the Supreme Court had ordered setting up of a committee to work out the NPV of forest land diverted for non forestry purposes on economic principles. This committee, headed by Kanchan Chopra from the Institute of Economic Growth, had recommended that locals should be entitled to 100 per cent of the value of Non Timber Forest Produce (NTFP), fuelwood and fodder on the diverted forest land. The committee’s recommendation was not accepted by the Supreme Court because communities had no legal rights over forests.

With the enactment of the Forest Rights Act in 2006, the situation should have changed. In 2014, MoEF&CC’s research arm, Indian Institute of Forest Management (IIFM), had also noted in its report on revision of NPV that 50 per cent of the losses from forest diversion accrue to local communities. Once again, the recommendation was overlooked in the Compensatory Afforestation Fund Act passed in 2016.

Sadly, our policymakers have conveniently decided to ignore above recommendations in their legislations and guidelines on compensatory afforestation and NPV. For instance, the CAF provides for utilisation of CAMPA funds for artificial regeneration (plantation), assisted natural regeneration, protection of forests, forest-related infrastructure development, Green India Programme, wildlife protection and other related activities. Communities have found absolutely no mention, though the effects of forest diversion on their livelihoods have been well documented. Such oversight will, in all likelihood, create conflicts in the future, as more CFRs get recognised. There is bound to be an overlap of area between CFRs and forest diversion projects in the years to come.

Lavari’s case is perhaps the first of its kind where the persistent demand of communities has compelled the state administration to consult the union ministries on the subject. It will be impossible for the ministries to provide their inputs to every such case. An effective solution can be to have clear guidelines on the utilisation of NPV funds inside CFRs where forests are diverted for non forestry purposes. We have to wait and see if the ministries will use this opportunity to incorporate the recommendations of IIFM and Kanchan Chopra Committee’s report on acknowledging communities as stakeholders in forest diversion and compensating them for their losses.

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