Centre overhauls process to grant clearances for projects on forest land
The Union environment ministry has overhauled the process to grant clearances to projects requiring forest diversions under the Forest Conservation Rules 2022
The Union environment ministry has overhauled the process to grant clearances to projects requiring forest diversions under the Forest Conservation Rules 2022, officials familiar with the matter said.
The government’s latest format of application forms and process flows on the environment ministry’s Parivesh website focuses a lot more on subjective details to avoid queries raised by various departments when applications are being considered. It also aims to complete the entire process in a time-bound manner.
HT has seen a copy of the new application forms.
The new process seeks to know from the applicant details such as reasons behind developing a project on forest land, details of the project and the concerned forestland, geo-referenced maps, legal matters, if pending, whether the project falls in a scheduled or an eco-sensitive area and cost benefit analysis among other inputs, the officials cited above said.
The new forms also seek an undertaking from the applicant stating that any shared data and information and enclosures are true to be best of their knowledge and belief and that if any part of the data and information is found to be false or misleading at any stage, the project will be rejected and clearance given, if any, will be revoked.
The undertaking also states that no activity/construction/expansion will be taken up before approval has been granted.
The Forest Conservation Rules 2022, which was notified in June 28, seeks to replace forest conservation rules 2003 and make the process of granting forest clearance efficient.
Under the Forest Conservation Rules 2003 earlier, the application for forest diversion would be received by the state’s nodal officer and subsequently forwarded to the divisional forest officer, conservator of forests, district collector. Each of them would raise their own set of doubts and seek details from the applicant.
However, under the new process, the forest clearance application will be directly sent to a steering committee comprising divisional forest officers, district collectors, conservator of forests, chief conservator of forests and the state nodal officer, each of whom will examine the details.
Subsequently, the steering committee will raise queries, if any, within a stipulated time period as mentioned under the new rules. If the applicant fails to address the queries within the period, then the application will automatically get de-registered following which the applicant will have to re-apply.
“Pendency of applications is a huge problem. Each and every official would raise doubts and questions at their own level under the previous system. This led to a perception that authorities are delaying clearance to a project. That perception is not good. We wanted to develop an effective system with the constitution of a steering committee who will process the application faster,” a senior official in the ministry said, seeking anonymity.
The application forms are more subjective now and seek all kinds of information to avoid any queries later on, the official said. “Many more sections have been added in the forms, so the chance of raising queries is less and hence, the time taken to issue clearances is also less,” the official added.
Under the new rules, for non-mining projects of more than five and upto 40 ha, the steering committee will be required to take a call within 60 days and for mining projects for the same size, the time period will be 75 days.
Similarly, for non-mining projects of more than 100 ha, the time period will be of 120 days and for mining projects of more than 100 ha, it will be 150 days. Time taken to grant clearances earlier would vary but for many projects it took years.
The new process has reduced the burden on the Union government, the official said.
“We were also asking for forest rights compliance earlier. It was not even our mandate under the Forest Conservation Act or even the Forest Rights Act. It was not always possible to check compliance of the Forest Rights Act properly. Many times, it was later found that consent of the gram sabha was fake which caused us to become parties in legal cases. Land is a state subject and the issue of ensuring Forest Rights Act compliance is also the state’s mandate,” the official explained.
Once the steering committee clears a project, the matter will be discussed by a forest advisory committee (FAC) comprising director general of forests, ministry of environment, forest and climate change (MoEFCC), additional director general of forests (wildlife), additional commissioner (soil conservation), ministry of agriculture and farmers’ welfare and three experts nominated by MoEFCC among others.
In a letter to all states and Union territories on September 15, the environment ministry had said that Forest Conservation Rules 2022 had changed the process of obtaining approvals for forest diversion.
The exclusion of a rule on obtaining consent of each gram sabha and a shift in responsibility from the central to state government to recognise forest rights for the land to be diverted have raised concerns among environmentalists and legal experts.
“The Forest Conservation Rules, 2016, had embedded the need for Gram Sabha consent as a procedural requirement for the purposes of prior approval for forest diversion by the environment ministry. The 2022 Rules do not include this requirement,” Kanchi Kohli, legal researcher at Centre for Policy Research, had said on July 13 after the new rules were notified.
“While the process of ensuring recognition of rights and final forest diversion is the responsibility of the state government, it will be important for the environment ministry to clarify why the procedural requirement for Gram Sabha consent as per their previous rules is not reflected in the new procedure prescribed in the 2022 Rules. In effect, the environment ministry has stepped back on its own position first clarified in 2009 through a circular and 2016 Rules gazette in March 2017,” he added.
“There is a legal issue with the implementation of the new rules. The forest conservation rules 2022 were tabled in Parliament during the last session and two statutory motions were made for annulment of the rules,” said Tushar Dash, Odisha-based independent researcher on Forest Rights Act 2006. “Implementing the rules now is a breach of parliamentary process. This will misguide the states also and lead to violation of forest rights act. The FC Rules 2022 are still under consideration by the legislature .”