Handle forests with care

A recent report by the World Bank divulges the folly of sacrificing the environment for development.

Declaring financial ‘inclusion’ a top priority of his administration, Prime Minister Narendra Modi recently launched various schemes and programmes.

Review of different laws administered by the Ministry of Environment, Forests & Climate Change (MoEF&CC) to usher in developmental projects is one among them.

For this purpose, a high level committee was set up under the chairmanship of former cabinet secretary TSR Subramanian. The committee comprises of retired judges and senior bureaucrats.

The report of the high level committee was submitted to the government in November 2014. A few observations and recommendations of the report which starts with quotes from scriptures and philosophers are the following: “Feeling that livelihood issues still dominate the social and political manifestoes, there is an urgent necessity for integration of environment, economic and social issues in the development paradigm. Thus, a mere tinkering with the already existing Acts would not be adequate to provide a coherent approach to enhance the quality of management of environmental issues.”

Since regional disparity and individual inequities loom large leaving a substantial segment of the population below the poverty line, the committee recommended speedy clearance of power projects and augmentation of mining operations including that of coal to enhance the pace of national development.

Mine development plan is supplemented with an afforestation component of planting forest crop in open spaces where mining waste is dumped.  Incentives for growing forests in private land, revision in the Compensatory Afforestation Policy and a classification of ‘tree lands’ as distinct from ‘forest’ too are recommended.

A new project clearance mechanism, based on the ‘single window’ concept to reduce the processing time, has been

elaborated. A full-time expert body called National Environmental Management Authority (NEMA) at the Centre, and State Environmental Management Authority (SEMA) are recommended for this. Use of GIS reference maps, combined with use of multilayer data captured through satellite imagery is proposed for preliminary screening and speedy project clearances.

Creation of an Environment Reconstruction Fund (ERF), establishment of a high quality National Environment Research Institute; creation of a new All India Service – Indian Environment Service; regular review of quality of forest cover and forest management; creation of a national ‘data base’ etc are the other suggestions.

Citing MoEF & CC estimation, the committee states that the land under ‘forest’ has increased from 40.48 million ha in 1951 to 77.18 million ha till date and the pace of diversion of forest land has decreased in recent years. But it is to be borne in mind that the MoEF figures include the tree cover that are in waste lands and road sides developed through social forestry schemes and not virtually that of the actual virgin forest cover. Merely growing trees on barren lands left behind from mining and other industrial operations cannot compensate for the ecological services offered by age old pristine forests.

If at all there is a notable increase in the spread and quality of forest cover and wildlife in the country in recent times, it is essentially due to the effort put in by dedicated environmentalists and NGOs operating in the field and the crucial role played by the judiciary to pronounce landmark judgments. In such a scenario, the recommendations submitted in just two months by a committee exclusively of bureaucrats and judges to dismantle roadblocks that hamper economic growth, totally disregarding environmentalists and natural scientists, can have its own blotches.

Green norms
In this milieu of easing of green norms and clearance rules for industry to facilitate unbridled growth, the quote from Isha Upanishad stated in the introduction of chapter 3 of the report emerge foolhardy – “Everything in the universe belongs to the Supreme God. Therefore, take only what you need, that is set aside for you. Do not take anything else for you do not know to whom it belongs”.

A recent report by the most aggressive promoter of the current model of development - the World Bank - divulges the folly of sacrificing the environment for development. It estimates that environmental damages India is subjected to, such as disease caused by air pollution, knocks 5.7 percentage points off its economic growth. Hidden in these figures is the horrifying and incalculable socio-cultural impact of displacement, dispossession, disease, premature death, malnutrition and loss of employment. 

The western world with its philosophy of treating man and nature as separate entities, believing that the former has the prerogative to exploit the latter, finds itself at the crossroads and is desperately looking for a new philosophy “to get rid of the ecological crisis which threatens man’s existence on earth.”

Ever since its first conference in 1972, this crisis has been repeatedly established by the United Nations. The United Nations Environment Programme has rather coined a new term, “green economy” that recognises the properties of healthy ecosystems as the backbone of economic and social well-being and as a precondition for poverty reduction.

(The writer teaches at the Christ University, Bengaluru)

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