The approval of the Compensatory Afforestation Fund (CAF) Bill, 2016 in the Rajya Sabha comes as a breath of fresh air into the otherwise stagnant debate over environmental concerns getting short shrift in the face of the development agenda.
The Bill, passed in the Lok Sabha earlier, will create an institutional mechanism to use around Rs 48,000 crore to mitigate the impact of diversion of forest land for non-forest use. The positive thing about this Bill is that 90% of the fund will be spent by the states on afforestation and related work. Odisha will get the maximum amount of funds with Jammu and Kashmir getting the least. The Congress expressed concerns, and justifiably so, about the rights of tribals and forest dwellers, the latter guaranteed under the Forest Rights Act 2006.
There are certain pitfalls that must be guarded against as the government proceeds with squaring development with environmental protection. For example, development projects should not be pushed as far as possible in the middle of protected forest areas as this would result in fragmentation of the forest land. In turn, this could affect the movement of animals and create areas that would be exposed to degradation. The waste from development projects, which invariably in the Indian context means industrial plants, are often dumped in these vulnerable ecosystems with disastrous results. When reforestation is undertaken, it is important to understand that it is best to go in for native species and not ones that either do not flourish in the area or adversely affect the ecosystem. The government must learn from past mistakes. In Karnataka, for example, despite massive investments in afforestation, the area under cover actually went down from 1997 to 2011. Today, 40% of India’s forests are classified as degraded. Now that the Bill has been passed, there is a real chance that India can also go in for natural regeneration of its degraded forests, which in the long run can work out cheaper than creating new plantations. For this, the government needs to study best practices from across the world. Environment minister Anil Madhav Dave must be held to his word that the fund will be spent in a transparent manner.
The management of forests, as things are now, is prone to large-scale corruption, which ranges from shortcuts in identifying and buying saplings to the actual planting and protection work. It is understandable that a developing country cannot put its economic agenda on hold. But environmental security has to be attended to simultaneously to secure the rights of those who depend on the forests for their livelihood and also as an antidote the ill-effects of climate change.