Futile deadlines: Afforestation drive in 5 states along Ganga is over with just 22% of target being met

Experts have questioned as to whether the Ganga catchment area is really available for afforestation

By Vivek Mishra
Published: Friday 11 August 2023
Against the afforestation target of 134,106 hectares, the project could only manage to cover 30,071 hectares

Yet another project conceptualised to safeguard the Ganga is over without even nearing its target. A Right To Information (RTI)-based investigation by Down To Earth (DTE) finds that the first phase (2016-21) of an afforestation drive along the banks of the Ganga is over after managing to plant trees only in a little over 22 per cent of the target area.

Trajectory of Himalayan rivers keeps changing. The Ganga, too, has shifted northward, which requires forestry to be done in the vacant catchment area, as per a 2016 meeting of the National Mission for Clean Ganga (NMCG), which works under the Union Ministry of Jal Shakti (water resources).

Forests have the ability to hold water and release it slowly into rivers—an important component of ensuring uninterrupted flow in rivers and improving the overall hydrological cycle.

This was the reason NMCG, in 2014, asked the Forest Research Institute (FRI), Dehradun, to prepare a detailed project report for an afforestation drive along the Ganga.

FRI took two years to prepare a list of areas using, for the first time, geographic information system and field surveys, in which 8,394,600 hectares (ha) along the Ganga were scanned.

The report, submitted by FRI to NMCG in March 2016, said that afforestation was to be done on a stretch of 2,500 km along the banks of the Ganga and its tributaries, covering 134,106 ha in five states—Uttarakhand, Uttar Pradesh, Bihar, Jharkhand and West Bengal.

Trees and shrubs were to be planted up to five km from both the banks of the main stream and up to two km from the banks of the tributaries, except in the upper hilly region of Uttarakhand and the Sundarbans region of West Bengal.

The Union government prepared a budget outlay of Rs 2,293.73 crore for the first phase of the drive, said the then Union environment minister Prakash Javdekar during the release of FRI’s detailed project report on March 22, 2016.

According to the report, besides enhancing groundwater recharge and reducing erosion on both sides of the Ganga, the flow in the rivers was also to be corrected. The state forest departments were asked to carry out the afforestation.

In February 2023, DTE filed RTI queries with NMCG on the status of the project. The reply, received in March 2023, says that afforestation has been done in only 30,071 ha (22.4 per cent) between 2016-17 and 2021-22 at an expenditure of Rs 347 crore in the five states.

But this response did not give performance of individual states. DTE then contacted the five state governments for the details and received a response from all except West Bengal.

Uttarakhand, which had the most area for forestation, has not completed even 10 per cent of the work. Akshay Kumar, environment specialist with state project management group (SPMG), Namami Gange, Uttarakhand, says that forestry work has been done only in 10,460 ha of the target of 54,855 ha.

Source: Down To Earth communication with state officialsSimilarly, Bihar completed work on only 7,000 ha against the target 27,667 ha, and this area also includes other plantation work done by the state government, says chief conservator of forest Sudhir Kumar.

Uttar Pradesh, which had to undertake afforestation on 14,212 ha, could cover 9,000 ha, according to K Illango, an Indian Forest Service officer.

Jharkhand’s share was the smallest, 1,939 ha, which was carried out in Sahibganj district, says a member of SPMG, Namami Gange, Jharkhand, requesting anonymity.

Nandini Ghosh, head of SPMG, Namami Gange, West Bengal, which had to undertake afforestation on 35,482 ha, did not respond to queries.

There is a discrepancy in the sum of figures provided by states and the information accessed from NMCG under RTI, but both sets of data show that the first phase of the afforestation drive covered only a fraction of the target.

“No state sought advice from us about the project, except Uttar Pradesh that asked for a meeting once,” says Dinesh Kumar, senior scientist with FRI. Neither was the project reassessed, he adds.

Shashi Shekhar, the then secretary of the Union Ministry of Water Resources, says that this was an important project for the continuity of the Ganga and for restoring groundwater level in the Ganga states.

Land acquisition

Experts also raise questions on the Ganga catchment area really being available for afforestation. According to a January 2015 order by the National Green Tribunal, the Delhi Development Authority has only 1,452 ha of the 9,700 ha Yamuna floodplain.

The rest is under agriculture, on lease or encroached. There is no reason the same is not the case with Ganga, and the question was raised at the time the afforestation project was planned.

Shashi Shekhar says that most farmland and private lands are along riverbanks, and, therefore, it was decided that the drive would be undertaken with the consent of farmers.

Delhi-based lawyer M C Mehta, who has been fighting cases against Ganga’s pollution since the 1980s, says it is the government’s responsibilty to acquire land for afforestation, like it does for developmental works.

“Courts have passed orders for removing encroachments from floodplains, but governments carry them out halfheartedly,” he says.

This was first published in the 1-15 August, 2023 print edition of Down To Earth

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