The nation has lost 26,245 sq. km. of forests in last two years. This hair raising information about the forests came to the notice of Hon'ble Supreme about an year ago. (The Times of India, 27 th. Feb.2007, Late City Edition, page 9, Delhi Edition). The court was hearing a petition in its forest bench. The author is keenly following the press reports as an ex- member of FAC (Forest Advisory Committee, Ministry of Environment and Forest) for a brief period of one year between Oct. 2005 to Sept. 2006. The information appears to be wrong. The author is therefore sharing some information with the readers of this esteemed News Paper.
Forests, under the law of the land, are broadly classified in to two categories. One, the forests which match with the dictionary meaning and the others appearing in the records of the states as forests. The former category can be seen, surveyed and trees can be counted by well known modern techniques. The second category depends upon the legal interpretation and this kind of forest may come in or go out of the statistics of the forests.
Coming to the loss of 26,245 sq. km. of forests in last two years is rather startling. How this figure has been arrived at needs to be cross checked. During the author's tenure as a member of FAC the diversion proposals approved by the committee totaled to only 1554 sq. km. If we take an average for one year the figure of 26,245 sq. km. comes to 13,122.5 sq. km. The FAC handled cases worth 1554 sq. km only and the average yearly loss of forest as made out at the apex court works out to 13,122.5 sq. km. There is thus a very wide variation between the quoted loss of forests and what the FAC permitted. This variation is a major cause of concern and needs closer scrutiny.
The resources are state subject and the states are free, within the broader legal frame work, to utilize the resources for the development of the respective states. It is likely that the states might not have sent the details of the forest denotified, which falls under their jurisdiction. Such cases, though small in area, may add up to a huge total. The states may also not know about the loss of forests by illegal means which is also quite rampant.
The author hurriedly went through the cases put to the FAC during his tenure totaling to about 1554 sq. km. Forest area denotified for the Defence was over 451 sq. km (30%), as per the orders of the court 712 sq. km.(46%),mining,276 sq. km.(17%), river valley projects,80 sq. km.(5%) and infrastructure like transmission lines, railways and roads about 35 sq. km.(2%).
It is interesting to know further details of the forest land diverted for different purposes. The forest land diverted for defence, as per court orders, for mining and other developmental activities as permitted under the forest conservation 1980 are briefly given in the following paragraphs.
Indian Army wanted the diversion of 168.4 sq. km. of forest land for Field Firing Range in Dehradun Distt. of Uttrakhand (Uttaranchal). The area has a forest density between 0.1 to 1.0. The diversion proposal was duly recommended by various authorities of the state government. The other case pertains to the diversion of 259 sq. km. of forest land of the similar background. Both the cases pertain to the undivided Uttar Pradesh, for which the orders had been passed earlier. This being the matter of national defence and had to be acceded to.
A large chunk of land, 656 sq. km. had to be excluded from the forests list in Punjab. This land was identified as forest land by an expert committee constituted by the Hon'able Supreme court on 12.12.1996. The Punjab Govt. approached the court stating that the land under reference was actually cultivated/ habitated ea. This plea was reexamined by the Central Empowered Committee (CEC). The CEC took a view that the cultivation/habitation was prior to 25/10/1980, the date on which the forest conservation act came in to force. In view of such an advice the Hon'able Supreme court directed the Ministry of Environment and Forests (MOEF) on 10/9/2005 to accede to the request of Punjab Govt. The MOEF was asked to consider the plea as per the procedures and guidelines of the Forest Conservation Act 1980. The area had to be diverted and a forest land lost its status. There are, and may be in future, many such cases which are potentially detrimental to the forests.
Mining accounted for only 17% (276) sq. km. of forest land diverted. It has been observed that the mining companies try their best to show the land as broken prior to 1980. The Forest Conservation Act 1980 becomes ineffective in such cases. The river valley projects accounted for 80 sq. km. of land (5%) and other infrastructural needed diversion of 35 sq. km.(2%) of forest land only. The mining alone contributes to 2% of the national GDP and 20% of the foreign exchange. The river valley projects, besides irrigating vast lands, provide 27% of hydropower.
Developmental projects like mining, irrigation and power and infrastructure are usually frowned upon by the environmentalists and some times toss unbelievable figures as in the present case. The quoted figure of 26,245 sq. km. is far from truth and needs detailed investigation.
The developmental activities like infrastructure, power and irrigation and mining are essential corner stones of the national development. The above information reveals that the developmental activities account for less than one fourth of the forest land involved. Mining had been a special target of environmentalists for all the times in the past and may continue to be so in the future. There is a need to delve deep into this issue by fellow mining engineers at all levels of the profession.
The Forest Conservation Act 1980 in its present form does not lead to forest conservation but to loss of forests. It has provisions like diversion of forest land for non forest use , regularization of encroachments and accepting as fait accompoli any thing done prior to 1980. The members of FAC, how so ever eminent be in their profession, therefore, manage the above basic contradictions to the best of their ability. There is thus an urgent need to revisit the Forest Conservation Act promulgated in 1980. There is a time lapse of well over 25 years and our experience with the act had not been very happy.
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