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Tuesday, December 07, 2021

Forest Act not applicable to land owned by user agencies, says Union environment ministry; conservationists raise alarm

Senior forest department officials opine that the decision came in the wake of resentment by public sector bodies like railways and NHAI whose projects get delayed in taking prior government approval and forest clearances.

Written by Aksheev Thakur | Bengaluru |
Updated: November 3, 2021 6:24:44 pm
The committee had prepared the report after visiting the site between Pakhrau Forest Rest House (FRH) and Kalagarh FRH in Corbett Tiger Reserve, Uttarakhand.

Conservationists have raised an apprehension that state governments or user agencies like National Highway Authority of India (NHAI) or railways would now expedite development projects within pristine forest areas without taking the prior clearance under Forest Conservation Act (FCA), 1980.

A recent clarification issued by the Union environment ministry on the applicability of the FCA over lands within the Right of Way (RoW), ownership of which rests with the NHAI or state governments, has triggered the concerns among conservationists.

In a meeting on August 24, under the chairmanship of Union Transport Minister Nitin Gadkari, the applicability of FCA, 1980, concerning lands within RoW was discussed.

Based on the meeting, the Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change (MoEF&CC) on October 26 stated: “If the ownership of land vests with Ministry of Road Transport and Highways (MoRT&H) /NHAI/State road constructing agency, it is not a ‘forest’ as per Government records and the same land is under ‘non-forest use’ before 25th October 1980, then provisions of Forest (Conservation) Act 1980 would not apply.”

The new decision by the Union environment ministry conflicts with the Supreme Court order of 1996 which stated that all areas recorded as forest in any government record, irrespective of ownership, need FCA clearance, say environmentalists.

A senior forest official explained: “Many user agencies like railways and NHAI have constructed railway lines and roads on lands which were acquired before the FCA came into existence. The RoWs are claimed to be acquired by these user agencies before 1980 to establish roads and railway lines. Part of the land was used for the purpose and the remaining part of the acquired land was left for future developmental work. So the trees or forest existing on the leftover land were left as it is and in some cases the forest department used to plant trees under different government schemes. These user agencies under the FCA would have to take permission from different departments for non-forest purposes but now if the government will not consider those areas as forest it is easy for the user agencies to push the projects without taking approval or calculating environmental risks.”

Senior forest department officials opine that the decision came in the wake of resentment by public sector bodies like railways and NHAI whose projects get delayed in taking prior government approval and forest clearances.

Former forest officer BK Singh said, “The roads going through forest areas will be misused for widening. NHAI and states have been claiming that they should be allowed to use the width of the land along roads within their right of way. Earlier, they argued that even if their right of way is 10 metres, they will clear trees over five metre width only and leave the remaining five metre untouched. Now the right of way which was hitherto under tree cover will be deforested to widen the roads.”

“This decision of the ministry will lead to deforestation on either side of such roads for fresh widening cum construction. To do this without obtaining clearance under FCA, 1980 is unjustified,” he added.

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