Faster forest clearances for national highway projects? State forest dept seeks clarity from green ministry
The Union ministry of road transport has expressed its intention to make it easier for state bodies to garner faster forest clearances on national highway projects. The Maharashtra forest department, however, has asked the Union environment ministry to issue formal instructions on recent directions issued by the ministry of road transport and highways (MoRTH) regarding diversion of forest land for such projects.
Sanjeev Kumar, chief engineer, MoRTH said, “The directions strictly pertain to major highway projects proposed by the Centre. Some of the stretches of these projects are handled by state agencies, but owing to existing norms applicable to them, there is a delay in overall project completion. We are not exempting any state agency from existing rules nor are we changing the rules, we are only bringing them under the aegis of the Centre while applying for clearances (under Forest Conservation Act) for faster forest land diversion.”
Kumar added that the decision was finalised only after a meeting with the ministry of environment, forests and climate change (MoEFCC).
On June 30, MoRTH issued a letter to all state governments informing them that state bodies like the public works department (PWD) and other agencies involved in developing national highway projects be exempted from purchasing non-forest land in lieu of forest area being diverted. This is mandatory for state agencies as per the Forest Conservation (FC) Act, 1980. Instead, MoRTH suggested, state agencies be allowed to carry out compensatory afforestation (CA) on degraded forest land, which applies to certain small projects (link roads, minor irrigation projects etc which directly benefit local livelihood) under the Act.
The letter also stated that since MoRTH and central bodies like the National Highways Authority of India (NHAI) are already exempted from the rule (purchasing non-forest area for loss of forest cover), state bodies should use the name ‘MoRTH’ as the user agency while applying for project clearances on the Union environment ministry’s Parivesh portal - a web-based application for online monitoring and submission of project proposals.
The move was intended to ‘avoid unnecessary delay in identification for transfer of non-forest land and diversion of forest land approval could be expedited’, the letter read.
Meanwhile, apprehending that state agencies may commence submitting proposals based on MoRTH’s letter, Sanjeev Gaur, nodal officer, Maharashtra forest department said, “We have referred the issue to the director-general of forest (DG), MoEFCC, to issue formal communication regarding the ministry’s stand on the MoRTH letter, and convey further course of directions when we receive such proposals.”
MoEFCC DG Sanjay Kumar and inspector general AK Mohanty refused to comment. However, a MoEFCC officer looking into FC issues, requesting anonymity said, “The MoRTH directive will apply to those state agencies working directly with NHAI only. Specific details on forest area diversion are still being examined, and a notification in this regard will be issued soon.”
Environmentalists vehemently objected to the decision. “India roughly has 20% forest area, and the cover needs to be 33% as per the National Forest Policy. To ensure we have additional 13%, mandatory conditions under the FC Act to bring equivalent non-forest land have to be followed by every project proponent, irrespective of who they are,” said Kishor Rithe, former member, National Board for Wildlife (NBWL) Standing Committee (SC).
Environmentalist Debi Goenka explained that post Prime Minister Indira Gandhi’s demise, the FC Act was diluted due to a lack of political will. “Earlier equivalent revenue land (non-forest land) was to be declared as forests for areas being diverted for projects. Post Gandhi’s death, a newly evolved strategy saw agencies pay for CA on degraded forest land twice the extent of forest area diverted for faster clearance. However, most cases of CA are a disaster as they are monoculture plantations that do not survive. We are losing thousands of hectares of forest land annually with negligible restoration in comparison,” said Goenka.
Former SC-NBWL member Bittu Sahgal said CA had been a total failure so far. “Several high court and Supreme Court orders highlighted the threat of not having enough forest cover in India since user agencies only accept carrying out CA on degraded forest land. The courts also raised concerns about the failure of this practice. Such plantations are not being done properly and have yielded unsuccessful results,” he said adding, “If MoEFCC brings such agencies under this sub-clause, India will continue losing forest land. We would never achieve the 33% forest cover goal, as we won’t have that many forest areas left.”