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India: Environment Ministry Releases Huge Funds for Extra-Legal, Environmentally Destructive Programs

by Campaign for Survival and Dignity, 15 July 2009

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Environment Ministry Channels Huge Sums of Money to Extra-legal, Environmentally Dangerous Afforestation Programs
- Bypasses Parliament, State Governments While Ignoring Environmental Costs and Violation of People’s Rights

The Campaign for Survival and Dignity, a national platform of tribal and forest dwellers’ organisations, is deeply concerned at the Environment Ministry’s recent decision, approved by the Supreme Court, on spending the huge sums of money (Rs. 11,400 crores) collected by it in the name of “compensatory afforestation” and “net present value.” The Ministry now will allocate Rs. 1000 crores of this money (roughly the annual interest) for tree plantation programs in the States, while keeping the principal locked at the Centre.

This will:

  • Accelerate deforestation and destruction of wildlife, since this will institutionalise the current questionable system of “pay a sum of money, get forest for your use.”
  • Displace more tribals and forest dwellers. In this system people are not even informed, leave alone consulted, when the original forest is cleared for destruction or when other lands are allocated for ’compensatory’ plantations (and then illegally notified as reserved forests). Both those in the area of forest destruction and those in the area of “compensatory afforestation” lose their lands, forest produce, water sources, common grazing areas, and therefore most or all of their livelihoods when the forest is destroyed. Such plantations displace huge numbers of people every year.
  • Increase violations of the Forest Rights Act through illegal evictions of cultivators, as the Forest Departments rush to access the huge funds coming in for plantations.
  • Cause environmental damage from monocultural tree plantations, which result in serious threats to biodiversity, water and soil, and are no replacement for forests or grasslands. It has been shown time and again that such afforestation plantations are ecologically harmful.
  • Directly violate the recommendations of the Parliamentary Standing Committee, which said the money should be returned to the State governments and, in future, both diversion of forest land and spending of compensation money should be done in consultation with those affected most – the local forest dwellers.
  • Deny State governments and local bodies their rightful share of this enormous money.

A crucial opportunity to make India’s forest management system more environmentally sensitive, transparent, democratic and accountable has now been lost. For full details, see below and the documents on the Compensatory Afforestation Fund Bill under “Other Legislations” at www.forestrightsact.com.

Background

This money is collected from user agencies who want to use forest land for non-forest uses under the Forest (Conservation) Act. The money consists of funds for compensatory afforestation (tree plantations) together with larger payments, imposed by the Supreme Court, and corresponding to the supposed value of the forest being lost. The total of these funds is now estimated at 11,400 crores and is lying with an “ad hoc” Compensatory Afforestation Management and Planning Authority (CAMPA).

A Supreme Court appointed expert committee had, in 2006, recommended that this money be distributed among all three layers of government - the majority of the funds to the local panchayat whose forest was being destroyed (since they bore the most severe loss), a second amount to the State government concerned, and a small percentage to the Centre. The Environment Ministry and the Central Empowered Committee (another Supreme Court committee) rejected this proposal because they wished to keep as much of the funds as possible within their control. In 2008, the Ministry moved a Bill before Parliament that would have placed all the money under the sole control of the Central government, to be allocated primarily for tree plantation work.

The Parliamentary Standing Committee condemned this Bill, saying it “will encroach upon the normal powers and functions of the State governments” and “The role of local bodies such as Gram Panchayats / Gram Sabhas etc. has been completely ignored in the Bill... afforestation ... deprives forest dwellers and tribals / adivasis of some or all of their lands and adversely impact their livelihoods and basic needs – for which they are neither informed, nor consulted, nor compensated.” It said “the existing system of forest diversion is non-transparent and undemocratic … merely levying higher money charges through NPV has not served as an effective method of protecting forests. On the contrary, it enables the powerful to buy the right to destroy the most pristine forests simply because they have the financial resources.” It went on to recommend that the money should be spent only through panchayats and gram sabhas and, in future, this system should be replaced with a “rigorous democratic process in which local adivasi and forest dweller communities are empowered to be part of decision-making.”

Ignoring the Standing Committee report, the Centre tabled exactly the same Bill in Parliament in December 2008, but it could not be passed in the Rajya Sabha due to a concerted effort by political leaders from the Left and the Congress. Unable to get what they wanted through Parliament, the Ministry appears to have decided to bypass Parliament entirely and instead came to an “agreement” with the Central Empowered Committee of the Supreme Court on how to spend these funds. This was then put to the Court, which approved the “agreement”, whose main part – the guidelines for the functioning of this authority – was not even discussed in the hearing.

The Ministry has acted in a blatantly unconstitutional manner, ignoring both Parliament and the State governments and proceeding through back door deals in order to ensure easy access and continued control over these enormous funds. This will only fuel more deprivation, conflicts and violence in the forest areas, while accelerating the loss of some of this country’s most precious resources.

Campaign for Survival and Dignity
- Ph: 9810819301, forestcampaign(at)gmail.com