Obstacles galore in the path of Green India Mission

The draft mission document states the main objective as doubling the area for afforestation in next 10 years. This mission has a budgetary proposal of Rs 40,000 crore. As a novel initiative, the ministry of environment and forests (MoEF) has sought comments from the public on the mission document.

While the main objective of the mission looks very noble, the ground realities prevailing in the country indicate that the mission’s chances of bringing commensurate benefits to the society do not appear to be great. As has been happening since independence, large tracts of thick natural forests of very high ecological value all over the country are continuing to be diverted for non-forest purposes.

Even if the GIM succeeds in doubling the area for afforestation in next 10 years, the practice of diverting the existing natural forests for non-forestry applications will definitely negate the meagre benefits that may accrue from such additional afforestation. Unless this diversionary trend is discontinued or drastically reduced, the proposed expenditure will be of little use.

While the society has considered it essential to build large number of roads, railways, dams, airports, power plants, mining infrastructure, industries, resorts, townships etc at the expense of forest/green cover, the necessity to retain the natural forest cover is being ignored. 

Whereas the National Forest Policy recommends that 33 per cent of the land mass should be covered by forests and trees for a healthy environment, our practice of continuing to divert forest lands for various ‘developmental activities’ will bring this percentage much below even the present low level of about 23 per cent in the country. 

While there are many illegal activities which are resulting in depletion of forest cover, many legal activities such as monoculture of acacia, rubber plantations etc, forest resorts/jungle lodges, expansion of nearby human habitats into forest areas are hastening the depletion of forests.

Without effectively controlling such activities of forest destruction, GIM cannot have a meaningful role in protecting our environment.

A recent statement by MoEF has indicated that about 33 per cent of the coal reserve belts in the country are in ‘no go’ areas because they are below thick natural forests. But there are also reports of massive lobbying to permit coal mining in such areas too, in order to cater to a large number of additional coal power plants. Bending the relevant rules to permit coal mining in such areas will reduce the thick forest cover of highest ecological value, which can never be compensated by GIM.

Guiding principles

World Charter for Nature was adopted by consensus by UN General Assembly in 1982, which has provided some guiding principles for protecting biodiversity. Some key principles so enunciated are: (i) Activities which are likely to cause irreversible damage to nature should be avoided; (ii) Activities which are likely to pose significant risk to nature shall be preceded by an exhaustive examination; their proponents shall demonstrate that the expected benefits far outweigh potential damage to nature; (iii) Environmental Impact Assessment should be thorough and be carried out in an open and transparent fashion. The international community under UNFCC also has considered ‘Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Forest Degradation (REDD)’ as critical to contain the global warming. 

Large size conventional power projects such as coal based or dam based or nuclear based power plants need large tracts of forest area to set up coal/nuclear mines, power plants, reservoirs, transmission lines, staff colonies etc.  Pollutants, emissions and wastes from the power plants also have huge deleterious impacts on quality and size of the total forest area in the country.  Strong opposition to the proposed Gundia hydel project in Western Ghats should be seen in this context.

It is also deplorable that the Integrated Energy Policy (IEP) without even discussing the impact on our forests and bio-diversity wealth has projected an increase of about 500 per cent in the total installed power capacity in the country by 2031-32.

While the huge impact on our natural resources because of the increase in installed power capacity from a level of about 1,500 mw in 1948 to about 160,000 mw in 2010 is clearly visible, further increase by 5 times in next 20 years is more than likely to devastate the fragile nature of our forests and bio-diversity.

A large number of dam based hydel power projects, which are being planned in many parts of the country will also lead to massive destruction of forests, unacceptable levels of interference in the natural flow of rivers, and will also threaten critical bio-diversity, while also impacting the quality of life because of many social issues.

It is deplorable that IEP has not objectively considered the much benign alternatives available in order to meet the legitimate demand for electricity. In order to protect our forests, green cover and general environment, our society needs a different paradigm of ‘development,’ and the civil society has to take active participation in decision making processes.

If the estimated budgetary provision of Rs 40,000 Crore on GIM is to be well spent, the ministry of environment and forests will have to take effective steps in conjunction with other concerned ministries and state governments to minimise the destruction of the existing natural forests.

(The writer is a power policy analyst)

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