Comment

Anything but green

The draft National Forest Policy is an attempt to get around the Supreme Court’s judgment on forest conservation

The Draft National Forest Policy, 2018, published for public comments in March, has generated a fair amount of public discourse. Despite all that has been written, what is it that has changed in the last 30 years that necessitates a new policy?

‘Flavour’ of existing policy

The answer lies in the judgment of the Supreme Court on forest conservation. In 2006, the court held that the existing National Forest Policy (NFP), 1988 has a “statutory flavour”. This was reiterated by the Supreme Court in 2011, in Lafarge Umiam Mining (P) Ltd. versus Union of India [(2011) 7 SCC 388], which said: “The time has come for this Court to declare and we hereby declare that the NFP, 1988 which lays down far-reaching principles must necessarily govern the grant of permissions under Section 2 of the Forest (Conservation) Act, 1980.” Thus, for the first time, the government was obligated to consider the provisions of NFP, 1988 while considering proposals for clearing forest land for activities such as mining, laying roads and building dams. One of the strongest provisions in the existing NFP is with respect to restrictions on diversion of forest land for non-forest purposes. According to the policy, “Diversion of forest land for any-non-forest purpose should be subject to the most careful examinations by specialists from the standpoint of social and environmental costs and benefits” (4.4.1). The need for “most careful examination by specialists” and “costs and benefit” are prerequisites before grant of clearances. In addition, the policy also says that “tropical rain/moist forests, particularly in areas like Arunachal Pradesh, Kerala, Andaman & Nicobar Islands, should be totally safeguarded” (4.3.1).

In the last few years, forest clearances granted by the Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change have been challenged before the National Green Tribunal by affected and concerned persons. The Ministry has been having a tough time in the Tribunal justifying how tropical moist evergreen forests in the Western Ghats, the Northeast and other regions which have to be “totally safeguarded”, in terms of the forest policy, have been allowed to be diverted in ecologically-sensitive locations. Concerned groups have also raised questions about the manner in which cost-benefit analyses have been done and how “detailed examination” by specialists was undertaken.

It is these specific provisions with regard to forest diversion that have become the Achilles’ heel of the government, which has been finding it difficult to justify forest diversion in light of the restrictions under NFP, 1988.

 

Facilitating diversion

Therefore, a matter of serious concern is that the draft policy published this year has completely deleted the section on safeguards to be followed for diversion of forest land. In fact, it does not regard diversion as a threat at all so far as forest land is concerned. Under the draft policy one has: before diversion of forest land, no requirement of cost-benefit analysis; no examinations by specialists; no requirement of alternatives; and no mention of the fact that tropical moist evergreen forests as well as forests in hilly States such as Arunachal Pradesh should be “totally safeguarded”. Instead of specialists, Central and State Boards for Forestry are envisaged, which are to be headed by the respective Forest Ministers with a specific mandate for ensuring “simplification of procedures”.

Contrary to general belief, the real motive for a new Forest Policy is not to encourage commercial plantations, undermine the rights of communities (which are protected under the law) or mitigate climate change and encourage the use of timber. The main objective, in plain and simple terms, is to facilitate speedy diversion of forest land for various non-forest purposes such as mining, laying roads and building dams without any detailed scientific and legal scrutiny.

The draft policy is nothing but an attempt to circumvent the Supreme Court’s judgment in Lafarge. There are reasons to believe that if the public at large demands that provisions with respect to forest diversion — as contained in the NFP,1988 — should be an integral part of the new Forest Policy, the government would never come out with a new policy.

Ritwick Dutta is an environmental lawyer. E-mail: ritwickdutta@gmail.com

 

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Printable version | Feb 17, 2020 12:59:44 AM | https://www.thehindu.com/opinion/op-ed/anything-but-green/article23906285.ece

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