Urbanisation, expansion of agricultural land, irrigation, power and infrastructure projects, etc., have all taken their toll on natural forests across the globe. Post-Independence, India chose development at the expense of forests. In 1980, the Forest (Conservation) Act was promulgated to check the massive loss of forests. States were merrily diverting forest land for various projects till this Act provided that no forest land can be diverted for non-forestry purpose without the prior approval of the central government. The Act also provided a penalty of 15 days’ jail term for any public servant violating it.
Although ‘Forests’ by then was in the Concurrent List, states were agitated by this law, and ignored it in initial years. In 1986-87, when TN Seshan was secretary, Environment and Forests, five regional offices of the union ministry were established to monitor the implementation of the Act. By then, the Centre had started granting permissions for diversion of forests while stipulating some conditions.
The important stipulation was to raise compensatory afforestation (CA) over non-forest land of equal extent. Further, states were also to notify this area as protected forests (PF). These stipulations were complied with in hardly 10% of cases. Forest lands continued to be diverted at will.
In early 1993, I was posted in the Bhubaneswar regional office of the union ministry to monitor cases where forest lands were already diverted and also to process fresh diversion cases in the states of Bihar, Odisha, West Bengal, Sikkim and Andaman & Nicobar Islands.
These are mineral-rich states where leases of iron ore, aluminium, coal, uranium and mica were granted in forest lands. I found that even after the expiry of lease periods, additional forest areas continued to be broken without concurrence of the central government.
Apart from destroying forests in the lease areas, mine workers also plundered additional forests for their settlements and for their daily requirements. Many violations by user agencies were in the knowledge of officials of state governments.
Forests continued to be plundered at an alarming rate until the Supreme Court applied brakes through its judgement in Godhavarman case in 1996.
But, as lease renewal cases piled up, the union ministry granted permissions in already broken areas. Here again, mischief was played and user agencies, in collusion with state officials, went on expanding already broken areas. The destruction of forests went on unabated.
During my four-and-a-half-year tenure in Bhubaneswar, I found that all states moved new proposals for diversion of forest land for several development projects without even complying with stipulated conditions in many old cases.
The Centre started granting diversion of forest lands in two stages. The final clearance was granted only after non-forest land identified for CA was notified as protected forest and the user agency paid for the cost of CA to the respective state forest department. When this cost was paid, PF notification became a bureaucratic process and was successful in hardly 10% of the cases. Two-stage clearances, too, had some loopholes.
In Karnataka alone, out of 15,860 hectares of forest land diverted for different projects, less than 1,270 hectares of non-forest CA land has been notified under Section 4 of the Karnataka Forest Act. PF notification is still far off. The story is similar in other states, too.
Forests continue to be diverted at the same rate as before the 1980 Act. In fact, the central government approves all diversion proposals of state governments. If for some reasons a particular project is rejected, it is reopened after some time and approved with some stipulations that are mere eyewash.
While processing fresh diversion cases in Bhubaneswar, I recommended rejection of some proposals of states, listing reasons for doing so. Later, the cases were manipulated and approvals granted overruling my recommendations. These cases are the Purulia Pump Storage project in West Bengal, where loss of forests made the wild animals in Ayodhya hills homeless; Daitari Banspani railway line in Odisha, which broke the elephant corridor; and a railway line of Central Coalfield Ltd, near Ramgarh, Ranchi, where an alternative alignment was available, avoiding forests land.
Many similar projects have disturbed the elephant corridors and Denkenal district of Odisha, which was free from human-elephant conflict in the past, is now registering the highest human deaths in the state from such conflicts.
Diversion of forest lands has broken the corridors of movement of wild animals, resulting in increased human-wild animal conflict. We have lost wonderful forests, and in lieu of them, compensatory afforestation areas have been granted in dry districts where even scrub jungle cannot be grown. Also, in CA, we grow monoculture of two-three species against the loss of forests comprising of thousands of species.
We have been recovering the cost of raising plantations on CA land from user agencies since 1990 and net present value (NPV) on account of environmental losses since 2002-03 after a Supreme court order. The NPV was revised in 2008, to upto Rs 10 lakh per hectare depending upon the type and density of forests.
All NPV money is deposited with the union ministry and is being passed on to states since 2008 at the annual rate of 10% of the contribution from the respective state, based on the direction from the apex court. The fund is managed by Compensatory Afforestation Management & Planning Authority (CAMPA) of the respective states. But the amount is largely utilised for infrastructure development of the forest departments.
In effect, we have lost wonderful forests and have only gained funds for investing on infrastructure, not to reverse the degradation of forests.
(The writer is former Principal Chief Conservator of Forests, Karnataka)