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Projects and Forests: Flawed Clearances and Complicit Foresters

In the last three decades, 12 lakh ha of forests have been diverted for other purposes, including for regularising encroachments, irrigation, power and mining projects. Most diversion proposals get approved because the forest bureaucracy is complicit in promoting them and uses every underhand means to do so. A system designed to protect forests has thus become a major mechanism for their destruction. And the Ministry of Environment and Forests is reluctant to deal with these systemic flaws.

COMMENTARY

Projects and Forests: Flawed Clearances and Complicit Foresters

A Correspondent

distorted; and independent expert evaluation is resisted. No disciplinary action is taken against officials who have failed to execute their task with due diligence. Tragically, a system designed to protect forests has become a major mechanism for their destruction.

An Uphill Task

The procedure for diverting forestlands

In the last three decades, 12 lakh ha of forests have been diverted for other purposes, including for regularising encroachments, irrigation, power and mining projects. Most diversion proposals get approved because the forest bureaucracy is complicit in promoting them and uses every underhand means to do so. A system designed to protect forests has thus become a major mechanism for their destruction. And the Ministry of Environment and Forests is reluctant to deal with these systemic flaws.

Economic & Political Weekly

EPW
october 8, 2011

T
wo recent documents, issued independently within a week of each other, highlight the fact that India’s forests are being rapidly destroyed by the very authorities entrusted with protecting them. The first is a letter written to Jayanthi Natarajan, the newly-appointed minister for environment and forests, by the nonofficial members of the Forest Advisory Committee (FAC). The letter points out serious structural deficiencies in the process of permitting the diversion of forests for public and private projects. That the forest clearance process is failing to conserve forests is confirmed by the data compiled in the second document, a report by the Centre for Science and Environment (CSE), Delhi, which shows a steep increase in the number of projects cleared and a steady rise in the forest area diverted. According to the 2009 Forest Survey of India report, the country has 690 lakh hectares (ha) under forest cover. The CSE report shows that, in the last three decades (1981-August 2011), 12 lakh ha of forest have been diverted for other purposes, including regularising encroachments (30%), irrigation (14%), power projects (14%), and mining (12.4%). As the accompanying table shows, diversions for projects jumped during the Ninth Five-Year Plan (FYP) period and have only increased steadily since then. During 1981-2011, 23,404 projects were granted clearance. Only 6% of the proposals were rejected. The low rejection rate may suggest that 94% of proposals meet the stringent requirements specified by law, but this is far from the truth. Most proposals get approved because the forest bureaucracy is complicit in promoting them. In order to do so, information is kept out of the public domain; relevant facts are suppressed or

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for “non-forest purposes” such as defence, public utilities, irrigation, power projects, mining and highways, is laid out under the Forest Conservation Act 1980, its subsequent rules and amendments, and guidelines issued by the Ministry of Environment and Forests (MoEF) from time to time. The “user agency” or project proponent submits its proposal to the state government. If the proposed diversion is 40 ha or larger, the application must be forwarded to the central ministry for clearance. Each such proposal is placed before the FAC which recommends whether the project should be given “in principle” or first-stage clearance. Once the user agency fulfils the conditions stipulated by the FAC and deposits money to meet the costs of compensatory afforestation, it is given final clearance by ministry officials.

As a statutory committee, the FAC plays a key role in the forest clearance process, similar to that of the Expert Appraisal Committee in the environment clearance process under the Environment Protection Act 1986. The FAC is chaired by the director general of forests and includes the two next senior-most forest officials in the country, a member from the Ministry of Agriculture (who rarely attends), and three non-official members who should be “eminent experts in forestry and allied disciplines”. The 2004 amended rules to the Act specified that the non-official

Table: Diversion of Forest Area

Period/Year Forest Area Diverted* (in ha)

1981-92 1,98,421.19

Eighth FYP (1992-97) 84,587.07

Ninth FYP (1997-2002) 1,47,397.57

Tenth FYP (2002-07) 1,96,262.32

Eleventh FYP (2007-12) 2,04,425.06

Total 8,30,244.00

*For all projects excluding regularisation of encroachments. Source: “Forest Clearance”, Centre for Science and Environment, viewed on 29 September 2011 (http://www. cseindia.org/userfiles/Forest%20clearance.pdf).

COMMENTARY

members should be experts from the fields of mining, civil engineering and development economics. However, thanks to an intervention by the Supreme Court in 2008, the non-official members in recent years have included conservation biologists, ecologists, and environmental historians and sociologists. The presence of social scientists has become all the more important since forest clearances are likely to have a significant impact on forest-using communities whose rights are protected under the Forest Rights Act 2006.

Past and present non-official members of the FAC concur that performing their role on the committee is an uphill task. The FAC meets once a month for a day and may have to appraise as many as 40 project proposals at a time. Since it is impossible to scrutinise all the documents that make up a proposal, the committee confines itself to evaluating the “fact sheet” prepared by ministry officials which sketches the main forest-related features of the project area such as flora and fauna, tree density, proximity to protected areas such as national parks and sanctuaries, extent of human displacement, land identified for compensatory afforestation, and the recommendations of the district forest officer and the conservator of forests. In addition, the fact sheet may include comments from the site inspection report (mandatory for projects requiring more than 100 ha of forestland), information on compliance with state government conditions (such as preparing a wildlife management plan), and so on. In order to make a more persuasive case before the FAC, many private and public sector user agencies send their representatives to Delhi to present proposals in person. On the basis of the limited information contained in the fact sheet, sometimes fortified by the hearty assurances offered by the project proponent, the FAC decides whether to allow forests to be diverted or not.

On the face of it, a fact sheet appears to be a fairly systematic and comprehensive document on which to base a decision. However, the facts contained in it are only reliable if the forest officers supplying them do their job competently. In some cases, local forest officers assess the potential impact of a project with sensitivity to wildlife as well as to forest-dwellers, pointing out if a highway will disrupt an elephant migration corridor or if a mine will put an end to tendu patta collection. Sometimes they suggest ways to restructure the project so that the effects on the forest are minimised. However, these are rare exceptions. In most cases, state-level forest officials fail to accurately report the situation on the ground and the likely effects of a project. For instance, in some cases, the tree density stated in the fact sheet has been found to be much lower than that recorded by the Forest Survey of India, a patent attempt to minimise the biodiversity values at stake. Wildlife found in the area may be under-reported or described in meaningless terms (for example, “1,769 wild animals present”). Forest officials willingly accept assurances about mitigative measures despite knowing that these plans are only too likely to remain on paper given that the local staff rarely has the capacity or the inclination to monitor them. Most projects that come before the FAC are backed by the unqualified approval of state-level officials. In case it is somehow found out that the information provided by the officials was wrong, no disciplinary action is taken against them.

For the FAC, sitting in Delhi and trying to get a grasp on the potential effects of a project in Nagaland or Madhya Pradesh, a map of the area is essential. Astonishingly, in this age of easily available highresolution satellite imagery, the committee still goes by the decades-old topographical sheets prepared by the Survey of India with their 1,50,000 resolution. Since the user agency is not required to provide the digital coordinates of the project area, ministry officials cannot easily cross-check vegetation data with the Forest Survey of India map or even against Google Earth. Armed only with an obsolete topo sheet and a map of mining leases, the FAC flails around trying to figure out the contours of a project blindfolded.

In the absence of accurate data being generated by the forest bureaucracy and unable to itself undertake a full review on the ground for logistical reasons, the only recourse before the FAC is to appoint independent experts to evaluate project impact by conducting site inspections. This has so far been done occasionally on an ad hoc basis, with the forest officials on the

october 8, 2011

committee favouring the appointment of their retired colleagues or those on deputation to MoEF-funded research institutions like the Wildlife Institute of India and the Indian Council for Forestry Research and Education, despite the potential conflict of interest. The current non-official members of the FAC suggested that independent evaluations be made mandatory for projects of a certain size (say, over 100 ha) and prepared a list of more than 150 environmental experts at academic institutions across the country with skills ranging from wetland ecology to tribal sociology. Although the list was submitted in June this year, it has been ignored by the ministry. Nor has any policy decision been taken to make independent expert site inspections mandatory.

Negating Local Voices

Another avenue for getting a fuller picture of a project’s forest-related impacts is to solicit views from local people and environmentalist organisations. Unlike the Environment Protection Act, the Forest Conservation Act does not require public hearings. However, a project proposal does require the consent of the gram sabha of the concerned panchayats, a condition that has been strengthened by the Forest Rights Act (FRA). The forester members of the FAC insist that gram sabha consent under the FRA is not necessary at the first stage of “in principle” clearance and can be obtained before final clearance. However, once first-stage clearance is given, the user agency and the state government proceed to treat the project as a fait accompli and, in the absence of effective information and mobilisation, many affected communities are likely to surrender their forest rights before the inevitable.

A critical perspective on a project is also likely to be obtained from environmental activists and organisations. But the forest officials on the FAC display a marked resistance to taking their analysis on board. Unlike project proponents from corporate firms who get to make PowerPoint presentations before the FAC, activist and advocacy environmental groups are never invited to present their views before the committee. Environmentalists who want to make a formal submission to the FAC find themselves stymied by the fact that the agenda is usually posted on the ministry

vol xlvI no 41

EPW
Economic & Political Weekly

COMMENTARY

website a day before the actual meeting, giving them no time to prepare their case (even the non-official members of the FAC are sent the agenda a day or two before the meeting, forcing them to attend the proceedings without adequate preparation). Unable to examine the relevant documents in time, project critics have to work with their hands tied behind their backs. Many important issues for forest conservation and forest-dwellers’ rights are thus suppressed and projects allowed to go ahead.

Faced with the vitally important task of forest conservation, the non-official members of the FAC find themselves frustrated at every turn. Even when they impose conditions for clearing a project, they have no way of ascertaining whether these will be actually fulfilled. The conditions act as a fig-leaf, hiding the uncomfortable fact that projects are being given the go-ahead even when neither the facts of the case nor one’s knowledge of the past record of the user agency or forest bureaucracy inspires any confidence that they will be met. No study has yet investigated the extent to which the conditions imposed during forest clearance have been honoured or whether forest officials have taken punitive action against violators. No action is taken against officials who do not enforce the FAC’s orders.

For National Development?

Why are forest officials at the state and centre so ready to divert forests for projects of all sorts? There is, of course, the issue of corruption which pervades forest clearance as it does all aspects of the licencepermit raj. There is illicit money to be made by pushing projects that should never have seen the light of day, let alone been recommended by forest officers. Yet even honest forest officials are willing to hand over forests to public and private sector firms because they are committed to the idea of “national development” through rapid industrial growth. As a group, foresters seem to be sold on the urgent necessity of dams, mines, power plants, and highways, even when they will destroy the forests they have sworn to protect. Support for accelerated resource extraction is accompanied by implacable hostility to poor forest-dwellers. A joint committee of the Ministry of Tribal Affairs and MoEF headed by N C Saxena which investigated the implementation of the fra noted in its December 2010 report that forest officers in many places were obstructing the rightful claims of adivasis and other forest-dwellers, even going as far as to preemptively evict them from lands they had occupied for decades. Support for large projects and opposition to poor adivasis describes the political-economic orientation of the majority of forest officials.

To this orientation must be added the larger context of economic liberalisation which has created an unprecedented rush to extract resources from forest areas and divert them for other purposes. Liberalisation policies have also made it much harder to differentiate between public and private interests, shaping how FAC members assess a project’s overall merit and their willingness to compromise on forest conservation. Is POSCO’s steel plant and dedicated port in the public interest? In that particular case, the FAC recommended that the project’s clearance be withdrawn because it had failed to comply with the FRA, but the committee was overruled by the then minister, Jairam Ramesh. However, in most cases, especially those where there is no public debate to provide an alternative point of view, the default approach of the official members of the FAC is that all projects are desirable for development.

Given the spate of existing and proposed projects, it is clear that the cumulative effects of multiple projects in a region need to be assessed along with their individual effects. Whether it is the deluge of dam-building in Himachal Pradesh or Arunachal Pradesh, or forest clearance for mining leases in Jharkhand and Orissa, in the aggregate such networks of projects have landscape-level effects that must be examined to understand how best to conserve forest biodiversity. Scientific research has established that forest fragmentation disrupts the movement of fauna, facilitates the intrusion of weeds, increases the threat of fire and leads to steady degradation and human-wildlife conflict. The cumulative effects of large dams include major changes in downstream ecology, increased seismicity, soil erosion and instability. The FAC has recommended that such cumulative studies be done so that its decisions are based on a wider understanding of a project’s implications. However, these studies have not been commissioned; nor has the underlying principle of taking a landscape-level approach to conservation been recognised or accepted.

The forest clearance procedure is thus deeply flawed. While there are technical and logistical impediments in the clearance process, their root cause is the MoEF’s institutional reluctance to enable an informed, independent and transparent decision-making process. While the previous minister showed a welcome willingness to widen the debate around controversial projects and consider all points of view, he did not take on the more difficult task of systemic reform that would make the forest bureaucracy more effective and accountable. This is the challenge that Jayanthi Natarajan must confront if she hopes to leave her mark on the ministry and on the fate of the forests that it is meant to protect. The letter by the non-official members of the FAC has been followed by a remarkably similar letter written by several non-official members of the standing committee of the National Board for Wild Life which deals with national parks and sanctuaries, confirming that conservation experts too are frustrated with forest officials’ obstructive practices. Wildlife non-governmental organisations have also intervened with specific suggestions to improve the forest clearance process. The steps that should be taken to stem this mess are fairly selfevident. Implementing them will require sustained pressure on the government from everyone who cares about forests and forest-dwellers.

EPW Index An author-title index for EPW has been prepared for the years from 1968 to 2010. The PDFs of the Index have been uploaded, year-wise, on the EPW web site. Visitors can download the Index for all the years from the site. (The Index for a few years is yet to be prepared and will be uploaded when ready.) EPW would like to acknowledge the help of the staff of the library of the Indira Gandhi Institute for Development Research, Mumbai, in preparing the index under a project supported by the RD Tata Trust.

Economic & Political Weekly

EPW
october 8, 2011 vol xlvI no 41

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