A polarising environmental bill that concerns over 150 million poorest, mostly tribal Indians is on the legislative radar of the government and is likely to be taken up for passage in Rajya Sabha at first opportunity this week.
The Congress, the main opposition whose backing is necessary for the bill, wants a key amendment. Environmentalists don’t want it, given a choice. The Bill provides a legal basis for clearing fragile forests if charges are paid. Soon after coming to power, the Narendra Modi government had set up a panel to review all environment laws.
Already passed by the Lok Sabha, The Compensatory Afforestation Fund Bill, 2015, will transfer a stockpile of Rs 38,000 crore collected so far to the country’s non-lapsable national accounts at the central and state level.
Currently, the money is lying unused with the National Compensatory Afforestation Management and Planning Authority, created on the Supreme Court’s orders. The bill will unlock the money so that it could be used to “grow” new forests or improve degraded ones.
For every acre of forests destroyed, an amount equal to their net present value will have to be deposited. Yet, environmentalists aren’t celebrating.
India’s tropical forests have been for centuries inhabited by tribals, who are uniquely tied to their natural habitats. They are akin to “indigenous peoples”, who cannot be subjected to negative effects of development, according to UN conventions.
Under the bill, areas for new forests in place of those cleared, are to be picked by bureaucrats, leaving little role for gram sabhas or village councils. This clause clashes with another pro-tribal law, the Forest Rights Act, critics argue.
Officials often undertake plantations on lands already in use by forest-dwellers, which further threatens them. A 2005 World Bank study found that the vulnerable Juang community had lost all of its common lands to compensatory afforestation plantations in the Juangpirh area of Orissa’s Keonjhar.
Experts say mere afforestation doesn’t help. Replacing varied forestry with rubber plantation, for instance, will be of little use to tribals. “The question is -- should this spending be completely in the hands of corrupt forest bureaucrats who have a track record of depriving people of their rights?” Rajya Sabha MP and former environment minister Jairam Ramesh told the Hindustan Times.
The bill entrusts the job of spending the compensatory funds to forest and environmental ministry officials. That’s a major sticking point.
Environmentalists argue that naturally diverse forests can’t be replicated by human intervention. “There seems to be no scope here and now to question the very basis of a proposed law that rests on the premise that the country’s forests have to go (for so-called ‘development’)?” said Shalini Bhutani, an environmentalist.
Bhutani said the Supreme Court and the National Green Tribunal had passed good pro-environment orders, which tend to be ignored. Over the years, a series of laws like the Protection of Plant Varieties & Farmers’ Rights Act, 2001 and Biological Diversity Act, 2002 seem to fit a pattern. They allow some kind of transaction and cash is aimed to be used for conservation.
“We don’t have a very good track record of doing conservation under these laws, certainly not to the extent the economic activities are carried out under the green garb of such legislation,” Bhutani said.
The tussle is also emblematic of a tricky issue: how much environment should India sacrifice for industrialisation. From airports to refineries, projects routinely run into environmental hurdles, prompting criticism that this holds back economic growth.