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India: proposed redefinition of "forest" an exchange

12 May 2015

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Leo Saldanha, ESG India
Mon, May 11, 2015

To: PRAKASH JAVADEKAR at gmail.com>
Cc: seshadri satyanarayanan at gmail.com>
Mr. Prakash Javadekar,
Minister of State (IC) for
Environment, Forest & Climate Change
Govt. of India

Respected Mr. Javadekar,

Thank you for taking interest in my comment on the proposed redefinition of "forest", which I had shared publicly in light of an editorial in Deccan Herald entitled "Redefining Forests, recipe for disaster". I note that in your cryptic response, you have accused me of spreading a canard, and wish to clarify that this is not my intention, and I am sorry you see it in that manner. My reasons are listed below.

There are many many, like me, who have legitimate concerns about the current process of defining forests and I must say we are all deeply worried that efforts led by you in defining what constitutes a "forest" is being undertaken in an in-transparent, undemocratic and unscientific manner. A major part of the evidence for such widespread concern is in editorials and article written by Deccan Herald and several other dailies, and an indicative collection of a few are enclosed for your review.

Your statements in the media do not address any of the concerns raised, and the responses provided appear to gloss over key issues or sidestep them altogether, and rather polemically. For instance, you were reported in an article entitled "Government is set to introduce a new definition of forests" in the 4th May 2015 issue of the Hindustan Times as follows: "“Yes, we will come out with definition of forest soon,” environment minister Prakash Javadekar told a news channel on Saturday. “Notified forests and those with good canopy (tree cover) will be defined as forest”". No clarification has since been issued, no retraction made, and so the public at large is at liberty to assume that you have stated as Minister that the definition of "forest" would only include those that are "notified" and those "with good canopy" cover.

It may be immediately seen that such a definition comprehensively attacks the possibility of extending any form of protection for grasslands, for instance, which are amongst the most productive ecosystems. If grasslands have survived, it is mainly because communities have protected them (as is the case with Amrit Mahal Kavals in Karnataka, which have been degraded by Government neglect or or actively destroyed by Government diversion, resulting in ecological and humanitarian chaos). Similarly, this kind of articulation results in rather dubious interpretations and these may be utilised by State Governments to promote diversion of ecologically sensitive areas to "developmental" purposes without proper evaluation (For eg. Karnataka amended the Tree Protection Act in a hurry, promoting massive felling of trees, especially Mangos). It is an undeniable record of the Ministry (both in NDA and UPA terms) that forest diversion proposals from the State are invariably supported by the Ministry, thus defeating the very idea of conservation of nature and our natural resources. The cautionary oversight demanded from the Ministry by the Forest Conservation Act, 1980, has rarely been employed. It is also a matter of record that forests and ecologically sensitive areas have most commonly been saved due to local community action/protests. For example, the campaign by villagers to save coastal forests in Jagatsinghpur in Orissa from certain destruction due to highly questionable siting of POSCO, as is the effort of various groups seeking judicial intervention and support for the implementation of the Forest Rights Act, 2006 in the Niyamgiri case.

Overall, you will agree that the definition of what constitutes a "forest" must be the outcome of a deeply democratic process, sensitive to a wide range of ecological and humanitarian considerations. You will also agree that it is Constitutionally required that such an exercise is undertaken in a transparent, participatory and scientifically rigorous manner, comprehending the multiple relationships of millions intricately linked with forests for their lives and livelihoods, and respectful of the web of life.

It is undoubtedly a complex exercise and demands an exercise not limited to consulting key functionaries of Union Ministries and some State Governments, but particularly inclusive of opinions across the length and breadth of the country, of 6th Schedule States, of Local Governments (in conformance with Article 243 ZD and ZE), and of statutory Forest Rights Committees, Biodiversity Management Committees, etc. To make this an outcome of a routine executive function runs the risk arriving at a definition where any of these could be the result: the definition could be weak or non-comprehensive or unclear or rigid or universal, all with serious and irreversible negative consequences on wildlife, on ecosystems and on people who depend on nature for their lives and livelihoods.

The Hon’ble Supreme Court has already directed the Ministry to move its decision making towards an "ecocentric" methodology, and not merely based on "sustainable development" that is entirely "anthropocentric" Judgment dated 15th April 2013 in Centre for Environment Law, WWF-I Vs. Union of India & Others [I.A. No. 100 in Writ Petition (Civil) No. 337 of 1995] [IA No.3452 in WP(C) No.202 of 1995]]. Were the NDA Government at the Centre to have deferred to this wise view of the Supreme Court, then prevailing efforts to define a "forest" would have already been preceded by a White Paper on the issue, put out in multiple languages for debating across the country, with meetings held in every District and Taluka, and the Ministry would be buzzing with activity receiving responses from a wide range of scientists (ecologists, geographers, anthropologists, naturalists, sociologists, etc.), representatives of forest dwelling communities and forest right networks, from Legislators and Parliamentarians, etc. But none of this has happened thus far.

Instead, what we have are the recommendations of the TSR Subramanian led Committee on reform of environmental and forest laws constituted by the NDA Government led by Prime Minister Modi. Much has been said and written about how the Subramanian Committee report is fraught with major violations of democratic and scientific enquiry processes, and a comprehensive critique has been offered by ESG (written by my colleague Bhargavi Rao and I) entitled: "A Non Trivial Threat to India’s Ecological and Economic Security" (accessible at: http://www.esgindia.org/resources/reports/press/indian-governments-high-powered-committe.html). The Subramanian Committee report has also been rather comprehensively condemned by many leading ideologues of the Sangh Parivaar. For instance Prof. B. M. Kumaraswamy, National Co-Convenor of Swadesh Jagran Manch, is reported to have called upon the Union Government "not to accept the recommendations of T.S.R. Subramanian panel to overhaul the laws related to environment and forest conservation" as "(t)he panel had prepared a report on this issue without consulting the farmers and the tribal people" and "(w)ith the objective of serving the interests of the corporate sector, the panel had recommended setting up of fast-track environmental clearance for power, mining and infrastructure upgrading projects" (See: "Government urged to save Kaanu forest from encroachment", The Hindu, 28th February 2015, accessible at: http://www.thehindu.com/todays-paper/tp-national/tp-karnataka/government-urged-to-save-kaanu-forest-from-encroachment/article6943983.ece). Yet, it is a matter of deep concern that ongoing efforts to define a "forest" are influenced strongly, and probably based as well, on the controversial (often irrational) recommendations of this Committee.

Sir, I have taken the trouble of writing to you this comprehensive response to your rather cryptic reaction to my earlier comment, so I may attempt to convince you that a complex task of defining a forest demands an equally complex process of consultation which is respectful of the complexities of the ecosystems involved and particularly the complex dependencies natural resources dependent communities on forests and other ecologically sensitive areas. I do hope and pray that my response will be taken in the right spirit, not any more considered as spreading a canard against the NDA Government, that I have offered substantive reasons why my earlier comment is a legitimate representation of widespread concerns, and that for so engaging with you in a democratic spirit I will be considered a person with a "vested interest" for protecting forests and forest dependent communities and hopefully not anti-national.

Thank you for this opportunity, Sir, and I do hope we will have more such opportunities to debate similar matters of critical concern.

Yours truly

Leo Saldanha
Environment Support Group
Bangalore

Selected news-reports on the ongoing effort to define "forests":

1) "Government is set to introduce a new definition of forests", Hindustan Times, 4th May 2015, accessible at: http://www.hindustantimes.com/india-news/govt-set-to-rework-definition-of-forests/article1-1343655.aspx

2) "Green to lose cover in redefined ’forest’", The Tribune, 10th May 2015, accessible at: http://www.tribuneindia.com/news/sunday-special/perspective/green-to-lose-cover-in-redefined-forest/78466.html

3) ’Subramanian Committee recommendations will weaken Forest Rights Act’, Malyalam Manorama, 21st April 2015, accessible at: http://english.manoramaonline.com/news/kerala/subramanian-committee-recommendations-will-weaken-forest-rights.html

4) "Narendra Modi, Favoring Growth in India, Pares Back Environmental Rules", New York Times, 4th December 2014

5) "NDA govt to dilute environment rules for projects: Prakash Javadekar’s environment ministry proposes reduction in parameters defining forests as inviolate", Live Mint, 6th June 2014, http://www.livemint.com/Politics/7GH72uyKdZnrIxBcgfgYQM/NDA-govt-to-dilute-environment-rules-for-industry.html

Cc.: All concerned

PRAKASH JAVADEKAR wrote:
We are not redefining forest.
We have actually suggested SC to add new areas to forests.
Stop this canard that NDA is destroying forest.
We are proactively protecting and increasing forest cover and will continue to do so despite deliberate negative campaign by vested interests.

On Saturday, May 9, 2015, Leo Saldanha at esgindia.org> wrote:
No Government ever before has been as reckless about the critical objective of governance - protecting forests and rights of forest dwellers -as the one led by NaMo.

Everything possible needs to be done to stop this madness of redefining "forests". From all accounts it appears this administration (it’s not even a Union Government the way it operates) is doing everything possible with words to ensure there is such a narrow definition of forests that it’s exploitation becomes the norm, not an exception. As this DH edit suggests, there is nothing Courts can do to protect "forests" when so narrowly defined as is proposed by NaMo, Javadekar, et al.

Left to States to further redefine what constitutes "forest", the way Karnataka has gone in recent months is an alarming example. "Mango" was introduced in a Scheduled list of the Karnataka Tree Preservation Act that allowed its felling without prior verification and permission. The Forest Minister, Chief Secretary, Principal Secretary of the Environment Dept., Law Secretary, Biodiversity Board and Forest Department colluded in this initiative and got the Act amended, thus allowing a free for all in felling Mango. So intellectually lazy was the entire Karnataka administration, and so over enthusiastic in promoting tree felling, that not only was the scientific name of "mango" and other trees (some even more threatened) not mentioned, the exemption was also not restricted to specify varieties, such as hybrids of mango which are non-threatened.

Within days, saw-mills across the Western Ghats were overflowing with demand for sawing felled mango trees, including several critically endangered varieties.

When the Union Government misses the woods for the trees, State Governments go ruthlessly after what’s left- the trees. Forest Rights Committees, Biodiversity Management Committees, Expert bodies, the wide public, etc. are all sidestepped in this undemocratic operation of executive and legislative power.

Is there hope in this madness then to even make a case for protection of grasslands, beaches, scrub jungles, sholas, wetlands and such other unique ecosystems?

http://m.deccanherald.com/content/476457/redefining-forests-recipe-disaster.html/

Redefining forests, recipe for disaster
MAY 9, 2015, DHNS

There is a fresh threat to the country’s green cover from a new definition of forests being considered by the Centre. Union Environment Minister Prakash Javadekar has said that the new definition will cover notified forests and those with good tree cover. But it may leave out a good part of what is now considered as forests. In fact, there is no clear definition of forests even now in the country and what exists is a set of guidelines given by the Supreme Court to decide what constitutes a forest and what does not. According to them, about 20 per cent of the land area in the country is considered to be forests. The government feels that the guidelines have caused confusion and there is the need for a precise definition. Its view and the new move are based on the report of the TSR Subramanian committee which has recommended that the laws relating to forests, environment and wildlife should be integrated for better clarity.

The concern is that the definition narrows down the scope of forests as trees on private land and plantations will be excluded. Similarly, the green areas that came up after 1980, when the Forest Conservation Act was notified, will be out of the national forest protection regime. Environmentalists fear that this will also exclude urban green cover. The government also proposes to allow states to have their own definitions of forests, so that those states which have a better forest cover can go in for a narrower definition which will make it easier for them to use such land for other purposes. The overall impact of the new proposals will be that the legal obstacles to cutting down trees will be curtailed and less stringent than now. When the new definition comes into being, courts too may not be able to come to the aid of forests, as they do now. Apart from this, there is also a proposal to amend the Tribal Rights Act in such a way that projects proposed in the forest areas do not require the consent of local inhabitants. This has also raised fears that the present restrictions on the use of forest land may be relaxed.

It is officially claimed that the new definition will encourage creation of forests by the private sector. But this is doubtful. It is likely to make it easy for industrial and other projects to be set up on what is now taken to be forest land. Wooded areas which are considered to be the lungs of some cities may also come under threat.

- See more at: http://m.deccanherald.com/content/476457/redefining-forests-recipe-disaster.html


Yours truly,
Prakash Javadekar,
Minister of State (IC) for
Environment, Forest & Climate Change
Govt. of India

 
Leo F. Saldanha
Environment Support Group
[Environmental, Social Justice and Governance Initiatives]
1572, Intermediate Ring Road
Banashankari II Stage
Bangalore 560070