A whopping 2.43 lakh hectares of forests have been cleared for industrial and development projects under the UPA regime from 2004 till the end of 2013. Oil and mineral exploration has been permitted over another 1.64 lakh hectares during the same period. Proposals for yet larger area of 3.30 lakh hectares of forests are currently under consideration before the central and the state governments across the country.

If one was to total these numbers, they add up to 7.36 lakh hectares of forests. This is nearly one and a half times the geographical area of the state of Punjab.

The Hindu calculated the figures from data generated by the Union environment and forests ministry.

Under the Forest Conservation Act, 1980 clearances for using forestland are given by the state and the centre. Any proposal for use of forestland above 40 hectares comes to the Central for clearance and all others are cleared by the state government and the regional offices of the Union environment ministry.

The clearance at the centre takes place in two stages. At stage one, the forest advisory committee of the environment ministry assesses the project and recommends the case to the ministry. The ministry imposes certain conditions and once the project developer has complied gives a final clearance. The Hindu looked only at the stage II clearances for the years under review. In 2013 alone 346 projects adding up to 18,345 hectares had been given a stage I clearance. Considering the fact that very few projects with stage one clearance get rejected eventually, these 18,345 hectares are also on the anvil to be chopped in near future.

The data shows, while projects may take time to clear but a very negligible percentage get rejected once a proposal has been generated. Against the 10,294 projects that were cleared under the UPA regime only 331 were ever rejected. This is less than 0.032 % rejection rate. The rejected cases add up to an area of 10,153 hectares – 2.50% of the land handed over to the ministry over the same period.

A large majority of the proposals that are pending decision do so at the state level. For example out of the 869 proposals that began in 2013, 718 are pending at the state government level. Similarly in 2012, out of the 642 proposals that were generated from across the country 472 are pending with the state governments for action.

A closer scrutiny of the data shows that very few projects ever got completely rejected for good. Project proposals that are sent back can be floated back for clearance some time, with minor amendments at times, to be cleared eventually.

The data that the ministry puts up very often to show better rejection rates in reality includes project proposals that have been closed or returned for want of clarifications from state governments for years or those withdrawn by the state governments themselves.

As expected some of the largest blocks of forests that have been cut for industrial activity were cleared either for mineral extraction or hydroelectric projects.

The forest areas opened up to exploration for oil, coal or other minerals–adding up to 1.64 lakh hectares for the decade of UPA rule – may be standing so far in some cases as exploration is not as destructive. But these forest patches are likely to come up for clean felling too when minerals and oils are found. Oil exploration in Arunachal Pradesh has taken over the largest single chunks of forests so far, the data reflects.

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