Niti Aayog strategy spells disaster

What type of India do we really need in the future? Do we need an India which is teeming with forests and wildlife, healthy rivers and development without destruction of forests? Or do we solely need development at the cost of the environment? By following the latter, India will become a country of droughts, floods and other catastrophes which will be man-made. By following the former, there will be balance, and finding solutions to some of the fundamental questions will be easy. But the Niti Aayog’s new document on the ‘Strategy for New India @75,’ has provisions that will have an irreversible negative impact on forests and wildlife.

In chapter 11 of the document — on minerals — under the headline ‘Way Forward,’ points 2 and 3 talk about single-window and time-bound environment and forest clearances and boosting minor minerals through a relaxed licensing regime. Single-window hub for the environment, forest, wildlife and Coastal Regulation Zone (CRZ) clearances through PARIVESH may seem a good move for some because developmental activities will be processed faster and will cater to the ‘ease of doing business’, but it is dangerous from an ecological perspective.

Currently, India’s area under forests is just 20%, and out of that hardly 4% is protected area (National Park, Sanctuary, Community Reserve, Conservation Reserve and Tiger Reserve) which come under the purview of the Wildlife (Protection) Act, 1972. None of these is free from human interference. All have been under threat in one or the way.

But what the Niti Aayog document envisages for the future is alarming. If the Ministry of Environment, Forests & Climate Change (MoEF&CC) declares areas which are inviolate feasible for open or underground mining, it will prove deadly for the catchment areas of the rivers and pristine habitats will be destroyed. The classic case being the Kudremukh iron ore mining, where vast stretches of pristine shola grassland forests of Kudremukh were a victim of open-cast mining.

River Bhadra was polluted to the core and the lives of thousands of farmers were affected. Later, it was stopped by a landmark Supreme Court judgement. Likewise, if this provision of the document is fully implemented, similar devastation is bound to happen in all forest areas. Statutory approvals for exploration and mining within 180 days being made mandatory is unscientific. Forest lands will be cleared at a faster pace, leaving no room for review.

Niti Aayog’s strategy envisages empowering local forest officers to decide on permissions for mineral exploration. As per the provisions of the Forest (Conservation) Act, 1980, for any non-forestry activities, there has to be prior approval of the central government. Local forest officers should be empowered to protect forests, not to encourage them to be a part of non-forestry activities. This could be a sure way to lose our forests at a rapid rate.  

The document also speaks of boosting minor minerals through a relaxed licenced regime for tribals. The collection of Non-Timber Forest Produce/Minor Forest Produce (NTFP/MFP) indiscriminately for commercial purposes in some forest areas has already created irreparable damage. Now, if there is a boost for mining of minor minerals, the entire ecosystem will be devastated. We have very little forests left, and tribals and wildlife will not be able to coexist anymore as it will lead to human-animal conflict. The incentive of mining rights will hamper the voluntary relocation of tribal populations and will affect the lives of tribals and wildlife.

The chapter on sustainable environment has several flaws. Plans to improve the quality of existing forests and take up aggressive afforestation lack scientific evidence and reasoning. Promoting mining and other projects in forest areas will break large blocks of forests into pieces and fragment habitats. How can the quality of the forests be improved then? ‘Aggressive afforestation’, after causing deforestation of old-growth natural forests, provides a mere fig leaf for denuding forests.  

The proposal to finance skill development with the Compensatory Afforestation Fund Management and Planning Authority (CAMPA) funds is another grave issue. A huge corpus of money, more than Rs 50,000 crore, collected for a particular purpose is now sought to be diverted to an altogether different cause. Why use  CAMPA funds for skill development? The money can be used, instead, for voluntary relocation of people willing to come out of the forests.

The government’s agenda seems to be clear — development matters, forests don’t. We are in the age of the sixth mass extinction of species, climate change, and an expected doubling of human population by 2050. Karnataka and Kerala recently witnessed deadly floods that left several dead and thousands homeless.

There is clear scientific evidence of how dangerous it is to cut forests for other activities. The government must consult scientists and conservationists to shape a better India without harming the forests. The Niti Aayog’s strategy will economically and environmentally devastate the India we have, rather than help build a New India.

(The writer is a Bengaluru-based conservation enthusiast)

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