The proposed amendments also make the sanction of forestland for industry relatively easier

The forest clearance process for industry projects is likely to be overhauled and eased soon, with strict timelines being forced for every step taken in the State or Central government to deal with proposals to use forestland.

The Hindu accessed a draft of the proposed changes in the forest clearance rules that the Environment and Forests ministry is near finalising. Forestlands are diverted for non-forestry purposes under the Forest Conservation Act, 1980 and the process is governed by rules under the law. The ministry now proposes to amend the rules substantially to ensure that each concerned office or department is bound by time limits to clear the proposal. But, the proposed amendments also make the sanction of forestland for industry relatively easier.

Sources in the ministry said the proposal is under the consideration of the environment minister at the moment. The also prescribe that action must be taken against those who delay processing the applications.

The draft of the proposed amendments to the forest clearance rules The Hindu accessed were sent to State-level officials for their comments. It could not be ascertained if all of these have been sent verbatim for the minister’s approval. But a source confirmed that the principle amendments in the proposal and the focus remained to usher in strict deadlines.

Under the proposal, a deadline has also been fixed for settlement of tribals’ rights under the Forest Rights Act for areas that industries want to set up projects in. Under existing rules, settlement and extinguishing rights of tribals is mandatory before giving clearance to industry, but no time limit is prescribed. Consent from each affected gram sabha is mandatory in these cases.

Under the proposed rules the district magistrate would get between 40-60 days to get consents from gram sabhas which are impacted.

Many industry lobbies and infrastructure ministries, including power and coal, have consistently complained that forest clearances – which are given at different levels – from a divisional forest officer all the way to the Centre – get caught in red tape. The environment ministry has often contended that the delay usually happens at the State level when proposals require clarifications and additional information, which is not provided.

Records of the government show that in 2010, the environment ministry cleared 1390 of the 1600 projects it dealt with, in 2011 it approved 1177 of 1657 projects, in 2012, 1024 of the 1129 projects were cleared and in 2013, so fa,r 915 of 924 projects have been given the nod. For this period, less than 15 per cent were either sent back for comments or rejected.

But the emphasis on hard deadlines under the new dispensation is evident with the provision that the State government shall get only 10 days to ensure that all documents it receives from the project developers are adequate and the need for more information cannot be raised 10 days after submission of the proposal.

The regional office of the ministry which is required under the proposed rules to review proposals asking for land between five and 40 hectares will do so upon the advice of a body made up of the revenue, forest and finance departments, besides from the department that is dealing with the proposal from the beginning. A strict deadline has also been set for the time taken for transmission of proposals from the State to the Centre.

Proposals that ask for above 40 hectares of land shall be assessed by the central forest advisory committee on strictly laid down criteria, under the new proposed rules. The committee shall recognize forestland that is part of any identified wildlife area, or is the habitat of any endangered and threatened species. It shall note land that is required for agriculture or hydro projects that displace people. It shall check if the State government has certified that no other alternative plot of land was feasible and that the land requirement is not significantly higher than the national average for that type of projects.

The proposed rules do not provide for any mandatory public consultation or cumulative impact assessments of multiple projects.