Sharp acceleration in forestland diversion

The period between 1999 and 2003 has seen a sudden spurt in the diversion of forestland for non-forestry purposes. A recent collation of data of the Union ministry of environment and forests spotlights this retrogressive pattern. The Atal Bihari Vajpayee-led coalition has also held the reins of power at the centre since October 1999

 
By Neelam Singh
Last Updated: Saturday 04 July 2015

-- (Credit: EMKAY)the period between 1999 and 2003 has seen a sudden spurt in the diversion of forestland for non-forestry purposes. A recent collation of data of the Union ministry of environment and forests (moef) spotlights this retrogressive pattern. The Atal Bihari Vajpayee-led coalition has also held the reins of power at the centre since October 1999.

It has been found that subsequent to the enforcement of the Forest (Conservation) Act (fca) in 1980, the average land diverted annually for non-forest uses decreased from about 150,000 hectares (ha) to approximately 35,000 ha. But such change in land use has again risen to 95,500 ha per annum over the past four years.

According to moef, about 847,000 ha of forestland was used for 10,118 projects from 1980 onwards. These tracts were mainly utilised to regularise eligible encroachments, conduct mining operations, lay power transmission lines, and construct hospitals, hydel power plants, irrigation systems and roads (see table: Change in land use). As many as 3,476 projects were cleared during 1999-2003. They covered 382,000 ha -- about 45 per cent of the total land diverted in 23 years. Furthermore, while an average of 350 projects were given the green light annually from 1980 to 1999, the yearly figure shot up to 869 between 1999 and 2003.

Change in land use
Project

Forestland diverted*

1980-1999 1999-2003
Mining 51,782 25,873
Encroachments 1,62,132 2,04,285
Defence 70,474 28,780
Roads 6,891 7,172
Drinking water 752 174
Hydel 34,905 22,404
Dispensary/hospital 55.7 0
Thermal 3,310.2 29.8
Railway 4,038 1,027
Schools 2,264 41
Irrigation 62,506 14,773
Transmission line 17,328 4,521
Rural electricity 162.1 0.9
Others 48,321 73,502
*Figures in hectares 
Source: Union ministry of environment and forests
Why this throwback to the pre-regulation era? "Earlier the project approval procedure was cumbersome and time-consuming. Now a decision has to be taken on the proposals within 90 days," explains N K Joshi, director general of forests, moef. Inspector general of forests V K Bahuguna takes the welfare tack: "More than 40 per cent of the diverted land has gone towards legalising encroachments. We have to take care of the country's development needs." To be sure, about 55 per cent of the entire regularisation process took place in the past four years. This, however, accounts for only 12 per cent of the encroachments proposed to be legalised since 1980.

Statistics also show that the nod for more than 40 per cent of all mining ventures, cleared from 1980 onwards, was given during 1999-2003. In terms of area, this works out to 33 per cent of forestland diverted for mining since 1980. "About 90 per cent cases pertain to lease renewal," asserts Bahuguna. Joshi reveals that such extension of old leases does not lead to an actual increase in diverted land. But a notional addition is made while calculating the total area under mining, he points out. However, Ravi Rebbapragada of Mines, Minerals and People, an alliance of tribal groups and organisations, differs: "Lease renewal is as good as issuing a fresh lease since it may result in more forestland being used for mining."

It may be noted that while fca mandates the Union government's approval for diversion of forestland for non-forestry uses, it does not ban such conversion. At the same time, the act contains several regulatory measures. For instance, if the project area falls within a national park or wildlife sanctuary, the venture is considered under fca only after it has been cleared by the National Wildlife Board. Even as state governments manage forests, moef is vested with the authority to give the go-ahead for diversion of forestland.

fca also lays down an elaborate process for clearing projects. The regional offices of moef can grant approvals for diversion of tracts up to 5 ha. If the area involved is 5-40 ha, the regional office processes the application along with the state advisory group (sag), but the Union ministry gives the final nod. "Regional offices don't work properly. There has been no regional conservator of forests in the north-eastern zone for the past few months," says Ritwick Dutta, a Delhi-based environmental lawyer.

For tracts above 40 ha, the project proposal is sent to the centre. The forest advisory committee (fac) processes it and gives its final recommendation. The fac and sag are constituted under fca to advise the Union minister of environment and forests.

One of the most important preconditions for approving proposals relates to compensatory afforestation -- offsetting forestland diversion by growing trees on non-forestland spread over an equivalent area, or on degraded forestland that is twice the size of the tract in question. "Such restoration work is done only on paper," laments R Sreedhar, member, Mines, Minerals and People.

The available data, too, highlights the fact that just 484,000 ha of land has been afforested since 1980 against the stipulated area of over 687,000 ha. "A compensatory afforestation management and planning agency is being set up to improve the situation," reveals Bahuguna. It remains to be seen how much this step helps in stemming the rapid denudation.

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