It took just three minutes for a critical legislation related to forest management to be passed in Parliament. The Compensatory Afforestation Fund Bill, 2008, was one of the 12 Bills passed by the Lok Sabha on December 23, 2008. Its quick passage brings to question the parliamentary process of law- making, especially when the issues involved are as complex as land rights, the environment and marginalised communities.
The Bill takes its cue from orders passed in the Supreme Court in the T.N. Godavarman Thirumulpad v/s Union of India case, which is an ongoing matter related to forests since 1996. The Bill was first introduced in Parliament in May 2008. Almost immediately, it came before the Department Related Parliamentary Standing Committee on Science and Technology, Environment and Forests for scrutiny. In June 2008, the Committee asked for comments from the public on the proposed Bill. Following discussions with the ministry of Environment and Forests (MoEF) and clause-by-clause analysis of the Bill, the Committee adopted the report on October 3, 2008. The Bill seeks to institutionalise a mechanism for the collection and use of money generated as payments made by authorities of projects that require forest land.
According to the Forest Conservation Act (FCA), 1980, if a project needs forest land, it is mandatory to seek approval from the MoEF. This clearance comes with conditions, intended to offset some of the impact of forest loss or damage due to the project. Besides the payments made towards satisfying these conditions, money is also collected as fines and penalties for violations. The Bill seeks to institutionalise a mechanism for the collection and use of money generated as payments from such projects and set up the Compensatory Afforestation Planning and Management Authority (CAMPA) for the management of the Rs 5,000 crore already collected. The money would be spent for forest conservation and afforestation.
There are problems in the premise of the Bill, and also the SC order that precedes it. It does not seek to check the alarming rate of diversion of forest land, but charges a monetary price for this loss. Serious failures to comply with conditions for mitigation of impacts invite only an imposition of fines. The fines are calculated mostly by assessing damage to public property and do not address the environmental and social impacts of such non-compliance. In this scenario, measures such as penal afforestation only condone the violations of conditions imposed under the FCA as well as for use of forest land without seeking clearance for the same.
The House panel had recognised all of the above in its report. It stated that “the Bill in its current form gives the impression that it is a step in the direction of legitimatising monetary compensation for diversion of forest land for non-forest purposes. It is based on the assumption that collection of more and more monetary compensation and tree plantation is the answer to forest conservation. But this assumption proves to be totally false if seen in the light of pace of diversion of forest land for non-forest purposes which has gained momentum since 2002 when the Supreme Court direction came…”
The report also questioned the MoEF on the fact that it had not presented the complete facts regarding the funds generated from compensatory afforestation before the SC or the House panel. Another reason for the Committee to reject the Bill was the centralisation of the compensatory afforestation funds that CAMPA will result in. It recommended that the facilitation of the prioritisation and use of funds should be done at the state level.
Despite the Committee raising these issues, their report found no mention in the parliamentary proceedings during the passage of the Bill. The report ought to have been discussed also because it recommended against the passing of the Bill that was proposed by the bureaucracy.
(Kanchi Kohli and Manju Menon are members of Delhi-based Kalpavriksh Environmental Action Group)