Tuesday, August 02, 2016

Compensatory Afforestation Bill – A Spectre of Old Problems: Part I

Guest Post by Sakshi Aravind

On 28th July, 2016 Rajya Sabha unanimously passed the deeply problematic Compensatory Afforestation Fund Bill, 2016 (“the bill”). It was passed by Lok Sabha without significant debates on merits earlier this year. The bill proposes to set up the Compensatory Afforestation, Management and Planning Authority (“CAMPA”) through which state governments will have access to 42,000 crores which shall be invested in afforestation projects. The bill comes as a product of long deliberation over need for increasing the forest cover, which has been consistently receding since 1951. In a recent statement released to the press, the Ministry of Environment and Forest (MoEF) has stated that introduction of the bill ends the uncertainty that has plagued several key projects under the ministry and seeks to provide more definite access for Central and State governments, to funds in order to 'restock and improve quality of degraded forests'. Even as the bill appears promising, several environmental conservation groups and tribal rights activists have severely condemned the proposed legislation for its inconsistency and shortsightedness. Not only has it been in direct conflict with the provisions of Scheduled Tribes and Other Traditional Forest Dwellers (Recognition of Forest Rights) Act, 2006 (“Forest Rights Act”), but also has fallen back on the archaic model of environmental conservation, which artificially isolates environmental landscapes from the people who inhabit them.

The Bill and the bones of contention

From a bare reading of the bill, criticisms of the civil society groups may appear counter-intuitive and even unjust. Without being too ambitious, the bill only provides for creation of permanent authority for overseeing of utilisation of certain dedicated funds in a transparent manner. Net Present Value (“NPV”), defined as quantification of the environmental services, such as tourism and climate monitoring, in the forest area diverted for none-forestry uses, has been a key feature of this bill. NPV is the basis on which the fund is calculated to arrive at the amount of re compensation for diversion. These funds are intended to be utilised in projects that also create employment opportunity to stakeholder tribal communities and ensure greater availability of timber and non-timber forest products to the local population. The bill is structured to satisfy the framework requirement laid down by the Supreme Court in T.N.Godavarman Thirumulpad v. Union of India and Others [Writ Petition (Civil) No. 202 of 1995] which addressed creation of compensatory afforestation fund, additional compensatory afforestation, penal compensatory afforestation and net present value of the diverted forest land.
An incisive examination of this seemingly innocuous bill reveals a dense addition of another bureaucratic structure to an already complex establishment. S.8 creates a heavily bureaucratised national authority with token presence of five 'experts' in the field of environment. This is an improvement over the previous number of two experts, revised only after the recommendation of the standing committee. The committee report suggested that a representative from the tribal communities should also be included. But this recommendation has been omitted. But a more disconcerting feature is manifest in how the bill chooses to ignore the prevailing rights and entitlements of the tribal communities under the Forest Rights Act. Both, at the stage of consultation of the present bill and the draft introduced in 2013 by the UPA government, the role of gram sabhas, which have nearly half the control over India's forests, have been ignored. It has been pointed that the bill merely reiterates the regrettable colonial model of environmental conservation reflected in most of our environmental laws.  

Notions of afforestation and ecological restoration as imagined in India's environmental policies, specifically in this bill, is impractical for several reasons. First, it is an ad hoc model that lacks clarity. India's landscapes are populated with variety of forests and ecological zones that require a detailed knowledge of the topography before adopting strategies for regeneration and re-forestation. Second, the fund allocated has been huge with little justification for the distribution of resources among states or the need for such massive expenditure. This is partly due to ill conceived strategies in afforestation projects that result in greater expense but little utility. Third, the complete absence of local participation or recognition of the moral and legal rights of the grama sabhas and tribals indicates that the benefits are unlikely to trickle down. Further, the questions of accountability will be a suspect in a web of institutions which is impervious to democratic participation and external scrutiny.

The author is Research Fellow, Vidhi Centre for Legal Policy, New Delhi. Part two of the post will appear tomorrow.
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