India’s plans to amend the Forest Act raise eyebrows

New Delhi: In its purported bid to push up economic growth rate and speed up clearance of mega industrial and mining projects, the Indian government is all set to redefine forests in an attempt to introduce a new business friendly environment regime.

The new government, now in office in its seventh month, has proposed changes to the law so that forest plantations undertaken after the year 1980 can be cleared to make way for industry and infrastructure to assuage business mood for ‘development’, a term considered by many as a euphemism for no-stops industrialisation.

Over years, successive governments in India and its state governments have aggressively promoted forest plantations to undo gross deforestation over years. Generations of Indian school going children have been encouraged to participate in tree plantation, believing these will help ameliorate the damage done to the environment due to deforestation.

The government claims that the amendments are being proposed to avoid the unnecessary delay caused by the National Green Tribunal (NGT) in clearing industrial projects. In its attempt to dilute the powers of NGT, there is a proposal to introduce the environment appellate board comprising of senior government officials.

According to the proposed amendments, the provision of permission required from the local bodies like the Gram Sabhas, the major stakeholders has also been diluted. In the changed scenario, the first appeal would reach the environment appellate board instead of the National Green Tribunal.

The Indian Environment Minister Prakash Javadekar in an interview to a prominent news channel said that a ‘new green regime’ for 2015 would be introduced in the Parliament during the Budget session in February.

Amendments have been proposed to several laws including the Environment Protection Act, the Forest Conservation Act, the Water Act, the Air Act and the Indian Forest Act. If the proposed amendments see the light of the day, no approval would be needed for cutting down trees planted along the highways, railway lines and flyovers.

G K Bhat, Chairman, TARU, a leading consultation firm specialising in scientific solutions to societal problems, expressed his concern by stating that the proposed amendments would give a walkover to industries.

The government should look for a win-win option instead of a win-lose option, he said. “The proposed amendments will create more fight between the local stake holders and industrialists which may lead to tensions and political movements,” Bhat warned.

B K P Sinha, a retired Indian Forest Officer, said that the proposed amendments would have both negative and positive consequences.

The impact in the short term would be disastrous for both the climate and the poor as the benefits in the new scenario will be accrued by the industrialists while the losses would be borne by the poor and the marginalised. “Ninety percent of water in perennial rivers comes from the forest catchment area,” he said.

Highlighting the role of trees in carbon cycle, nitrogen cycle and soil nutrition, Sinha said the reduced green cover would make the soil less productive impacting the agricultural produce. “Instead of increasing tree cover in our country, we are decreasing the greenery which will have an adverse impact on the already high level of carbon emissions making it difficult for people who are already grappling with climate change related extremes like the disastrous floods in Uttarakhand and Jammu and Kashmir,” he said.
 

published date:January 12, 2015
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