Green clearance:Housing in forest areas could get nod
New Delhi: The Union ministry of environment, forests and climate change (MoEFCC) has decided it will consider residential projects of up to 1 hectare (10,000 sq m), roughly an area larger than a football field, in forest areas under exceptional circumstances -- a significant change from its earlier position on such projects.
In a note to all state governments dated January 24, the environment ministry’s forest conservation division said the issue of residential projects was considered by the Forest Advisory Committee (FAC) in its meeting held on September 17, 2021. Based on the recommendation of FAC, and consideration of the recommendations by the competent authority in the ministry, it added, clarification was being issued and changes were being made to guidelines issued under the Forest Conservation Act published in the Handbook of Forest Conservation Act and Guidelines 2019.
Independent experts said the relaxation in guidelines for residential projects could be misused leading to large scale loss of forests.
“This entire note is completely against the government’s own policy that forest land shouldn’t be diverted for residential, housing and agricultural purposes. One hectare is a very large area for any residential project. Under the Forest Rights Act, exemption is already given for certain activities related to forest dwelling communities. So, is this exemption for city dwellers? The note is dangerous in every way,” said environmental lawyer Ritwick Dutta.
Another expert said such residential projects may be considered for rehabilitation of forest dwellers or tribals, who are displaced from forest land for various projects. “There are two points that require further enquiry. First, the requirement of forest land for rehabilitation of displaced persons continues to be understood as same way as disposal of fly ash or setting up of a manufacturing unit. This has implications when historical rights of communities living in forest areas are acquired or extinguished. The second is the need to justify why the residential colonies are limited to only 1 hectare. This is important because there is huge demand for deemed and recorded forest lands in peri urban areas, where high value residential colonies may be planned or be in existence. This change may have implications for such projects,” said Kanchi Kohli, legal researcher at Centre for Policy Research.
The relevant part of the changed text in the handbook now reads: “Utilisation of forest area for establishing industries, construction of residential colonies, institutes, disposal of fly ash, rehabilitation of displaced persons, etc. are non-site-specific activities and cannot be considered on forest land as a rule. For that matter, no non-site specific proposal can be entertained for considering approval under the FCA 1980. In exceptional circumstances, residential projects up to one ha, can be considered for approval under FCA 1980 by the MoEFCC, subject to appropriate justification and recommendation by the concerned State Government and the Regional Officer of the IRO of MoEFCC.”
IRO stands for Integrated Regional Offices, which comes under the MoEFCC, and deal with state-level infrastructure and development projects.
The letter also added that Clause 11.1 of the guidelines is now deleted. Clause 11.1 stated that infrastructure projects requiring diversion of forest land under the forest conservation act 1980 fall under following categories (in addition to the General Approval granted by the Central government for the specified public utility services and critical/strategic defence infrastructure for the specified periods) -- road widening and construction, including widening in existing right of way; construction of railway lines including conversion of metre-gauge railway line; repair and maintenance of roads constructed on forest lands prior to October 25, 1980; residential projects in forest lands; construction of residential buildings in private forests; non-site-specific projects like industries, residential colonies, institutes, disposal of fly ash and rehabilitation of displaced persons; ecotourism in forest areas; ropeways etc.
The ministry’s explanation is that the change actually ensures that fewer residential projects will be built in forest area, by clarifying a change that was made in 2019 in the handbook, which was not being followed because an earlier, 2004 edition of the handbook was ambiguous about locating residential projects in forests.
“The reason we had to issue this clarification is because people were building in forest areas and saying these are residential facilities linked to the main project. The cumulative impact of such constructions is big. Now we have almost closed the window and kept it very narrow for exceptional cases with permission and scrutiny by the ministry. We are clarifying this misinterpretation,” said a senior environment ministry official who asked not to be named.
Now, any construction will be allowed only in “exceptional cases which will be verified by both regional and central teams of MoEFCC”, this person added.