Even as the Himachal Hydropower Power Corporation Limited (HPPCL) is set to make a fresh application for diversion of forestland for the Renuka Dam project, environment and forests minister Jairam Ramesh has reaffirmed his ministry’s August 31 decision. In its order, the ministry had declined forest clearance to the dam on the grounds that around 1.5 lakh trees would be submerged by the project. The Delhi government has been banking on the project to alleviate the capital’s water worries.
It is not surprising that in order to represent their case, the project proponents are now trying to reduce the number of trees by making ‘alterations’ to the 148-metre dam in Himachal Pradesh. While the figure of 1.5 lakh itself is debatable (local people place it at about 13 lakh), the issue is not merely one of the ‘number of trees’ being cut.
There is ample evidence to indicate a more substantial basis for the ministry’s decision. To start with, the entire affected area, including the 49 hectares of the Renuka Wildlife Sanctuary, has subtropical deciduous forest with species like sal, khair, shisham, kachnar, toon and bamboo that adds to the biodiversity of the region and also supports the local economy. The next most critical point of contention: any diversion of "forest land" for the project would violate the provisions of the Forest Rights Act, 2006, which requires recognition and settlement of the rights of the communities dependent on these forest areas for fuel, fodder and medicinal plants.
In a recent report, the National Forest Rights Act Committee has also recognised that the Himachal government has failed to implement the act and that no forests should be diverted for projects like the Renuka Dam until the rights are recognised. Further, as per 2009 ministry guidelines, getting a ‘no objection certificate’ from the gram sabhas (village councils) of project-affected villages is necessary before diverting forestlands. But this hasn’t been done in the case of the Renuka project, which is going to submerge lands owned by over 1,000 families of 37 villages at Sirmaur. The submergence of these lands won’t only destroy a thriving agricultural economy but also the socio­cultural fabric of the Giri Valley.
Moreover, the state forest department and project officials are silent on the issue of private and common forests (shamlaat) that haven’t been brought under the ambit of the forest diversion proposal submitted to the central ministry. More than 450 hectares of such forest seem to have escaped the attention of the department, which has recommended the proposal.
In a survey of a single revenue village, HPPCL counted 32,640 trees in an area of 445 bighas (about 30 hectares) that need to be acquired. "This suggests a density of nearly 1,000 trees per ha of shamlaat forest, which according to us, is much higher than the density of trees in the 775 hectares of reserved forests that is proposed to be diverted for the project.
The estimation of 1.5 lakh trees is wrong if we include the trees in these private forests. Do the authorities not require a clearance for these?" questions Puran Chand, member of the Renuka Bandh Sangharsh Samiti, an NGO.
Interestingly his question has a rather straightforward answer. A Supreme Court order in the 2009 TN Godavraman case states that diversion of such forests, not under the jurisdiction of the forest department, should attract the provisions of the Forest Conservation Act, 1980, and that felling of trees and non-forest use of these areas should not be permissible without a forest clearance. Yet trees in shamlaat forests haven’t been included in the survey for the forest clearance for the Renuka Dam.
These private forests, along with farmlands, are being forcefully acquired using the ‘urgency clause’ of the Land Acquisition Act 1894 and the landowners are not being allowed to file any objections with the government. Evidently, there are many unresolved issues that warrant the step taken by the central ministry. However, these need to be clearly spelt out so that HPPCL has more to do than just slashing the tree numbers and the governments in Delhi and Himachal Pradesh have more to answer for before justifying the need for this dam further.
Manshi Asher is a member of Him Dhara, an NGO The views expressed by the author are personal