By Aakash Mehrotra
The government has been vigorously pushing a slew of reforms to ease forest clearances for industries. The time taken to get clearance has dropped from 160 to 100 days, and the government hopes to take it to 30 days. This can be achieved only by an obvious compromise on background study and research, thereby putting our forests at risk.
At the same time, the Prime Minister and the Environment Minister have repeatedly asserted that development will not be pursued at the cost of India’s remaining forests. As welcome as these statements are, they drift one far away from the reality pursued. And then there is a further cause of apprehension in the Compensatory Afforestation Fund Bill, 2015 (CAF Bill), set to be tabled in Rajya Sabha this monsoon session.
The ‘Compensatory’ Afforestation Fund
This is a convenient ‘Indian Idea’ which has been in practice for decades. Whenever forest land is used for a development project, a certain levy is imposed on the developing party to compensate for the loss of the forest land. In the last decade, an amount of Rupees 35,000 crores has been accumulated in the name of these levies. A noticeably small amount, considering that over 1,84,393 hectares of forest land have been cleared in the last five years itself. The present form of the CAMPA bill introduces a novel concept of the net present value (NPV) of forests.
It is placed at around Rupees 5–10 lakh/hectare, depending on the health of the forest. Experts, however, want it to be as high as Rupees 55 lakh/hectare for healthy forest land. Environmental economists and real estate professionals will know how conveniently forests have been devalued in this calculation. Forests provide both tangible and intangible benefits. The monetary value of all these benefits, when taken into account, will far exceed the NPV as decided by the government.
An Overview of The Bill
The Prime Minister’s referral to the bill as one of the highlights of this session is enough to emphasise its gravity.
As per the bill, the Central Government wants to release 90% of the amount collected over the years to carry out afforestation projects along with building forest infrastructure, creating water reservoirs, clearing invasive species, etc.
On the face of it, it appears a progressive step. My experience with CAMPA funds tells me that funds have been used in a multitude of ways from creating watch-towers to building rest houses, thereby upgrading infrastructure and enhancing forest services.
So, Where Does The Problem Lie?
The entire bill is based on a flawed and unscientific premise (the NPV set) of artificial regeneration through plantations.
The bill will be channelled through the same bureaucratic set-up that has failed to achieve anything worthwhile in the last several decades. The forest communities will again fail to be recognised as the key stakeholders in this act. With such a shaky base, the bill will prove nothing more than a ‘fig leaf’ for covering up the uninterrupted diversion of forest land in the name of development and economics. Greening patches of land with plantations will serve no function.
Ill-planned development projects and mining activities result in the fragmentation of forests. This leads to the breakage of land into smaller and more vulnerable patches, creating new edges exposed to exploitation and degradation. This has a serious deleterious impact on biodiversity and the health of forests. Sadly, instead of addressing these critical issues, the government is toying with the idea of compensating for the loss of forests by raising plantations elsewhere.
Afforestation or Mere Greenwash?
Call it a greenwash or a sinister ill, but efforts towards afforestation in India involve everything other than enhancing biodiversity. Imagine a standing plantation of teak or poplar instead of a virgin forest with hundreds of native tree species. I have seen huge patches of forest land being destroyed due to mining activity. The sight of a grassland or a river bank planted with monocultures in the name of afforestation is not uncommon. These are practices that will eventually spell an ecological disaster.
Standing forests are not the only victims of rigorous mining activity. Grasslands are destroyed by the mindless planting of trees too.
And what when the trees planted are non-native and add zero value to the biodiversity of the region? These are colossal mistakes and have repeatedly been committed in the name of greening India (These are colossal mistakes that have repeatedly been committed in the name of ‘greening India’). Erecting plantations of Eucalyptus on roadsides, at the cost of native Indian species, is one of the many examples of this phenomenon. Afforestation has just been a magnified form of this mistake. The MoEFCC recently issued guidelines to state governments, permitting them to open up degraded forests for management by private companies. This compounds worries about these plantations causing an even greater loss of biodiversity.
In India, there are a large number of forests that need to be protected and regenerated. Degraded forests can be bettered by taking a good stock of the existent root stock, and the government would then have to only invest in appropriate protection measures such as trenching, fencing and preventing fires. The degraded forests will then recover through natural regeneration at a very nominal cost. Compensatory Afforestation needs to base its value on long-term biodiversity conservation. Merely greening the surface will not replenish any of the environmental services the land has been ridden off.
The Diminished Role of Forest Communities
This is the most contentious part of the bill and has been vehemently challenged by the Congress party and social activists. The bill fails to address the role of forest communities in the regeneration of forests. Thus, questions like whose forest is it and who gets affected the most by its loss remain unanswered.
The CAF bill ignores the historic rights of these communities on forests. Instead of empowering the local communities in carrying out afforestation and forest enrichment activities, the Bill places its faith in the ‘forest bureaucracy of the colonial-era’. Apart from the major stakeholders of forests being excluded in the process, the bill takes the fund and its disbursement away from judicial scrutiny. This can result in abetting corruption and financial irregularities.
In China, hundreds of millions of hectares have been handed over to the communities (over to local communities). Latin America is full of examples where local communities are leading the march towards the conservation of forests. The governments of these Latin American nations have provided incentives to their farmers to conserve forest land. Back here in India, Orissa has a host of such stories to learn from.
Gaps That Need To Be Filled
The Environment Ministry’s assertion that replacing the phrase ‘diversion of forests’ with ‘reforestation’ will lead to ‘zero losses’ is faulty.
Previous experiences with the National Afforestation Programme and the Green India Mission present ample evidence on how the bureaucracy works. The Government seeks answers in standing plantations which increase the green cover but not the forest cover.
The current bill needs modifications. If it is passed in its present form, we will lose more of our forest lands in the name of greening it. On the face of it, the bill presents a splendid picture, worth applauding. The devil, however, is hiding in the details.
Aakash Mehrotra is a management consultant working in the field of financial technology, focusing on using technology to extend financial services to rural and low income households. He is also a travel blogger.
Featured Image Credits: Pixabay