Climate and Us | A new — and weakened —environmental regime is in the offing
The environment ministry's forest conservation rules 2022 could have grave effects on forest dwellers and endangered species, and may see more room for exploitation. Here is why it may not set a good example
Several new environmental policies are in the works which are likely to dramatically change forest and environmental regulation in India in the years to come.
Last week, the Union environment ministry notified the forest conservation rules 2022, which will replace the forest rules notified in 2003 and seek to simplify and shorten the process of appraising any infrastructure or other development project involving the diversion of forest land. It also aims to make land availability for compensatory afforestation easier.
The rules recommend the constitution of a project screening committee in every state and Union Territory (UT) that will screen all project proposals involving the diversion of forest land in a time-bound manner. The five-member project screening committee will meet at least twice every month and examine every proposal received from the state governments or UTs, without going into the merit of the proposal, to ensure that the proposal is complete in all respects and the proposed activity is not in a restricted area for the purpose of screening and ascertaining.
This screening committee will have to examine all non-mining projects between 5 to 40 hectares (ha) within 60 days and all mining projects within 75 days. For projects involving a larger area, the committee gets some more time. For non-mining projects involving more than 100 ha, it's 120 days, and for mining projects, it's 150 days. Environment ministry officials told me that the Project Screening Committee was introduced to cut down on time spent in the appraisal of projects.
While delaying projects cost the project proponents’ huge amounts of money, the rules should have underlined the importance of scrutinising the impacts of every project involving forest diversion on biodiversity, water resources, air quality, and wildlife. As the impacts of the climate crisis become more pronounced, the precautionary principle should be underlined in all such policies. The rules provide less screening time for smaller projects and more for projects involving larger areas. This categorisation is misplaced when it comes to impacts of diverting forest land — both small and large. If a project involves a smaller area of forest, that doesn’t mean that the patch doesn’t serve as, say, a critical wildlife corridor or a habitat for endangered species.
The problem with compensatory afforestation
The rules also provide for what is called “accredited compensatory afforestation”, which can be developed by any individual who has raised a plantation over a block of 10 ha; where trees are at least 5 years old and have a canopy density of 0.4 or more. These blocks of plantations can be bought by project developers who can present these lands as compensatory afforestation plots against forest diversion for their projects according to the recently notified Forest (Conservation) Rules 2022. Compensatory afforestation refers to planting or regeneration activities done to compensate for the loss of forests when forest land is used for mining, industries, or an infrastructure project.
For several years now, compensatory afforestation has been a challenge for both project developers and the environment ministry. Non-availability of large tracts of land along an area where forestland has been diverted for a project has led project proponents to identify land in far-off districts or even another state to compensate for forest loss, depriving communities dependent on forests of resources and green cover. The ministry has even started accepting degraded forest land patches to raise compensatory afforestation plantations. But now, with the new rules, we will be going a step further where plantations are raised by private individuals on any land, including their agricultural land, which can be traded to project developers.
Senior ministry officials said such a scheme is the only way to meet India’s goal of 33% forest and tree cover and get people to benefit from tree plantation. But such a scheme could also unleash several complications. Who is going to ensure, for example, that these tree lots or plantations offer the same ecological features and services as the natural forest that is diverted? How will forest dwellers have access to these plantations? And can they collect or use forest products from these fenced-off areas? Doesn’t such a clause encourage easy forest diversion? The environment ministry perhaps needs to discuss these rules with communities living in or near the forests to understand the implications better.
On July 1, the environment ministry released consultation papers on amending four environmental regulations. The violation of certain environmental regulations may soon be decriminalised, although they would attract stiffer penalties, according to the public consultation papers. Some violations of the air and water acts, the environment protection law, and the public liability insurance law — that deals with providing relief to victims of accidents while handling hazardous substances in industries — will be decriminalised to remove the fear of imprisonment, the ministry said.
Prosecution and penalties
In the case of the public liability insurance law, for example, the ministry seeks to remove the provision of prosecution. Only in the case of non-payment of penalty will the violator be prosecuted. The penalties will be collected under an environment relief fund. According to senior ministry officials with whom I spoke, these changes need to be brought in because prosecution is nearly impossible in the case of environmental violations. The violator moves court and then normally it takes years and decades as the case progresses. Those affected by water or air pollution, or other environmental crimes need immediate remediation.
So, the prosecution provision is suggested to be removed, but monetary penalties for compensation have been increased, according to officials. But they couldn’t explain why both prosecution provision retained, and penalties increased, was not an option. Some legal experts said regressing on criminal liability of violating an environmental law doesn’t set a good example, especially today when impacts of the climate crisis caused by anthropogenic CO2 emissions are wreaking havoc over different parts of the world.
Amendments to environmental regulations are necessary to meet contemporary challenges but the environment ministry’s focus should be more on the conservation of fast-depleting forests and natural resources in India to ensure it is resilient to environmental crises in future.
From the climate crisis to air pollution, from questions of the development-environment tradeoffs to India’s voice in international negotiations on the environment, HT’s Jayashree Nandi brings her deep domain knowledge in a weekly column
The views expressed are personal