The report of the Comptroller and Auditor General underscoring the blatant violation of conservation laws and Supreme Court orders in the diversion of forests for destructive non-forestry use confirms what former Environment Minister Jairam Ramesh said about the system: it’s a bit of a joke. The compensatory afforestation mechanism instituted to balance the devastating loss of natural forests has failed abysmally. The CAG’s report is proof that India’s environmental health has been in free fall since the dawn of economic reforms. The Union government as well as the States have played an active role in this decline. The Supreme Court’s Central Empowered Committee (CEC) stepped in where governments failed and set up a framework for monetisation of forests. But what was meant to ration the use of forest land has only served to justify its usurpation. With the possible exception of designated protected areas, judicial scrutiny and oversight did not result in an effective regime to either reduce deforestation or to green alternative lands.
Among the major findings of the CAG are the non-receipt of nearly 73 per cent of lands earmarked for reforestation, poor work outcomes, and failure to assess and levy stiff penalties on defaulting companies to whom forest wealth was handed over. The funds collected for transfer of forest land, totalling around Rs 30,000 crore, have been misused, not accounted for or badly managed. The CAG has recorded the arbitrariness in the deployment of funds by the Union government, the States and the CEC. Environment and Forests is in the concurrent list of the Constitution. This was meant to make the States and the Centre co-trustees of natural resources. Instead, it has become an excuse to shun responsibility. As a consequence, monitoring of forests and projects that use forest land has all but collapsed. In more than 1,000 cases that the CAG test-checked, it found projects continued to use forests in violation of regulations and conditions laid down while securing clearances. Today, market forces, and the government, are jointly usurping the forest commons, aided by experts and officers sitting behind closed doors at the Centre, in the States, and in the judiciary. Their private decision-making should not decide the fate of India’s forests and the millions who depend on it for survival. Given the scale of the CAG’s findings, it would be reasonable to call for a moratorium on projects involving diversion of forests. A comprehensive reform of the monitoring mechanism is needed to ensure democracy and transparency.