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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