IN another decision that tweaks current environmental pre-requisites for infrastructure projects, the Central government has asked states to make the Ministry of Road Transport and Highways (MoRTH) the ‘user agency’, in place of executing state agencies, to be able to get an exemption from a clause that makes it mandatory to make available equal measure of non-forest land in exchange for forest land diverted for national highway projects.
The decision, vetted by the Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change (MoEF), was conveyed to all states by a letter issued by MoRTH on June 30.
With this, the MoRTH will now be eligible for the exemption granted under Forest Conservation Act (FCA) to central user agencies. These agencies have to comply with the other stipulation of doing compensatory afforestation on double the degraded forest land.
Earlier, state agencies, like the Public Works Departments (PWD), which would implement the project on behalf of MoRTH , were treated as ‘user agencies’ and would hence not be eligible for the exemption. So, the state PWDs had to make available equal measure of non-forest land against the forest land diverted for the project.
In the June 30 letter addressed to state governments through officials of various departments, the MoRTH has cited difficulty in making non-forest land available against the forest land needed for the project, resulting in projects getting stuck and delayed.
“It has come to the notice of the Ministry that for diversion of forest land, non-forest land is insisted upon by some of the states by the forest authorities, especially for the National Highway Project being developed through state PWDs. A special dispensation has been given for the Central Government project, in departure from the general norms, wherein afforestation in degraded forest land is allowed in lieu of the non-forest land…,” stated the MoRTH letter.
“In view of the above, all the state agencies are requested to do necessary compliance for the National Highway Development Project, so that unnecessary delay in identification for transfer of non-forest land could be avoided and approval of diversion of forest land could be expedited,” the letter further stated.
But since FCA is a subject dealt with by MoEF, some states wrote to the ministry, seeking clarity on the new MoRTH directive. The MoEF has replied in the affirmative, thus paving the way for MoRTH finally getting the exemption. “We had sought clarification from MoEF on the matter. They have sent us minutes of the meeting of June 24, where the decision was taken,” said Maharastra Additional Principal Chief Conservator of Forest and Nodal Officer Sanjeev Gaur.
The decision, however, has raised concerns among environmentalists and conservationists. “This decision flies in the face of the much-cherished goal of achieving 33 per cent forest cover. If projects keep gobbling up prime forests and the user agencies are not compensating by making available equal measure of non-forest land for afforestation… then we are only headed for further dip in overall forest cover,” said Kishor Tithe, a former member of National Board for Wildlife, who has been a member of many committees constituted to assess the claims for diversion of forest land for government projects.
“… Several studies have proved how compensatory afforestation on degraded forest has been a sham more often than not,” he added.
Environmentalist Debi Goenka said, “This should actually make all Forest departments very happy since they will get a lot of money to spend on plantation plans, which are a big sham… about forest land getting depleted, on record it actually doesn’t, since the land status remains as forest. That’s why these deletions for highways don’t show up in Forest Survey reports.”
He added, “And whatever afforestation may happen, it’s mostly mono culture, which is no replenishment for the real forest. And the MoEF never bothers about what happens to afforestation. So, overall, the latest move is set to further dent forest and environment.”
A senior Maharashtra Forest official said, “The Forest department had earned over 60,000 hectares of non-forest land in exchange for diversion of 67,000 hectares of its own land for all kinds of projects, including highways, ever since the FCA came into force in 1980. The new rule means no new land would accrue to the department against diversion of its land for highway projects.”
Maharashtra has roughly 16 per cent land under forest cover. “But forest land and forest cover are distinct concepts. The latter also includes non-forest green patches. The aim is to achieve 33 per cent forest cover, not land,” added the official.
📣 The Indian Express is now on Telegram. Click here to join our channel (@indianexpress) and stay updated with the latest headlines