In just 30 years, India has lost large forests to 23,716 industrial projects. Of the 14,000 sq km of forests cleared over the past three decades in India, the largest area was given to mining (4,947 sq km), followed by defence projects (1,549 sq km) and hydroelectric projects (1,351 sq km)…
Arunima Sen Gupta
Over the past 30 years, forests nearly two-thirds the size of Haryana have been lost to encroachments (15,000 sq km) and 23,716 industrial projects (14,000 sq km), according to government data, and artificial forests cannot be replacements, as the government recently acknowledged. The government’s auditor has said conditions under which these projects are given forest land are widely violated, and experts said government data are under-estimates. “It (government figure) is just the tip of the iceberg,” TV Ramachandra, associate faculty, Centre for Ecological Sciences, Indian Institute of Science, Bangalore, said. “Our study shows dense forest areas in northern, central and southern Western Ghats have decreased by 2.84%, 4.38% and 5.77% respectively over the last decade.” Currently, up to 25,000 hectares of forests – 250 sq km, or more than twice Chandigarh’s area – are handed over every year for “non-forestry activities”, including defence projects, dams, mining, power plants, industries and roads, the government recently told Parliament. The rate of “diversion”, as the process is called, varies across states. Punjab diverted about half its forest land since 1980, compared to Maharashtra, West Bengal and Tamil Nadu, which diverted less than 1% of their area.
India’s forests now cover 708,273 sq km, or 21.54% of the country, compared to 640,819 sq km 29 years ago, according to the India State of Forest Report, 2017, the latest available. The rise is explained by planted trees, particularly as monocultures, which do not replace the diverse, natural forests that are permanently lost. Between 2015 and 2017, India has added 6,778 square km of forest cover and extended 1,243 sq km of tree cover. However, experts claim such increases are just an “outcome of statistical jugglery and the use of flawed definitions by India’s forest bureaucracy”. In fact, some experts believe the net gain in India’s forest cover could actually be masking massive deforestation. According to an analysis by the Delhi-based environment group, Environment Impact Assessment Resource and Response Centre, the Indian government has, on an average, diverted 122 sq km of forests for development projects every year between 2014 and 2017. Data in the report shows that between 2015 and 2017 over 21,000 sq km of standing forests were completely denuded. But, in the same period, more than 24,000 sq km of completely denuded lands turned green. There is a catch here. A natural forest does not grow overnight. Not even in two years. Even with direct human intervention – termed “assisted regeneration” – it can take completely denuded lands up to a decade to become moderately dense forests. Thus, experts point out that much of the new growth seen in India over the past two years is from plantations – monocultures of one species of trees or a handful of different species. “A marginal increase in tree cover is reported. It is not clear how much of real forest is a part of this increase. Monocultural plantations have no value in terms of eco-services. Bring back diverse indigenous trees. A bad news for northeast, a biodiversity hotspot, where forest coverage is reportedly reduced. Much effort has to go into this,” stated Prof CP Rajendran, JNCASR, Bangalore. Similar sentiments were voiced by Prof CR Babu, Professor Emeritus, Centre for Environmental Management of Degraded Ecosystems (CEMDE), University of Delhi: “The increase in forest cover might not be due to the increase in natural forests but due to increased area and the increased plantations made State forest Departments. Most of the plantations are either of single commercial species or a mix of two to three species. Many of these plantations may be exotics. In terms of ecological services, there is a marked difference between natural forests and man-made monoculture plantations. A plantation almost always harbours low levels of biodiversity. Also, a decline in moderately dense forest does negatively impact the ecological services and goods provided by the forest such as recharging of ground water, carbon sequestration and others.”
Forests must largely remain inviolate and can only be diverted as exceptions, according to the Forest Conservation Act, 1980. Of the 14,000 sq km of forests cleared over three decades, the largest area was given over to mining (4,947 sq km), followed by defence projects (1,549 sq km) and hydroelectric projects (1,351 sq km), according to data from the Compensatory Afforestation Fund Management and Planning Authority (CAMPA), run by the ministry of environment and forests. Of the 15,000 sq km of forest lost to encroachment, the greatest loss was reported in Madhya Pradesh, followed by Assam and Karnataka. Some states, such as Kerala, Andhra Pradesh and Bihar, have curtailed such encroachment.
‘Compensatory afforestation’ may replace trees not ecosystems
“Compensatory afforestation” is the term used to describe the trees that must be planted as compensation for forests cut down, which requires special permission from the ministry of environment and forests. Experts criticised compensatory afforestation as an “unscientific” and “flawed concept”. The loss of forests is not a loss of trees alone but the collapse of an ecosystem, said Samarpita Roy, PhD scholar in environmental science from Pune University. The government may claim planted trees compensate for forests lost, but that does not mean complex flora and fauna destroyed have been restored, said Roy. Of 14,000 sq km of forests cleared since 1980, 6,770 sq km were planted anew, or afforested, according to the latest government data. As the second part of this series reveals, the process of afforestation is faltering, with no more than 6% of a fund set aside for the purpose used. The government has itself accepted that compensatory afforestation cannot substitute for natural forests. “Compensatory afforestation is undertaken to minimise the loss of impact of forest diversion in due course of time,” a government statement said. “It is not possible to compensate (the) loss of a natural forest, at least for centuries,” said Ajay Kumar Saxena, Programme Manager (Forestry) at Delhi’s Centre for Science and Environment, an advocacy. A forest has thousands – even millions – of species of flora and fauna living in a complex “ecological mix”, with natural nutrient cycling processes that “cannot be restored by creating monoculture plantations”, said Saxena.
Why nature-abundant states face highest man-animal conflicts…
Arunachal Pradesh has cleared the most forests over 30 years (3,338 sq km), followed by Madhya Pradesh (2,477 sq km) and Andhra Pradesh (1,079 sq km), according to Ministry of Environment and Forests data. Jammu & Kashmir, Tamil Nadu and West Bengal have released the least forest land for non-forest uses. Many projects are allowed within forest land, and that is a process disruptive of both human and animal lives. “Whenever a developmental project goes inside the forest, it results in fragmentation, the breaking up of large forest blocks into smaller patches, which permanently destroys habitat for many species,” said Roy. Fragmentation is one of the most serious threats to long-term Indian biodiversity conservation, former National Board of Wildlife members Praveen Bhargav and Shekhar Dattatri have written in their columns in leading dailies. It is a driving reason for growing human-animal conflicts across India. Uttarakhand houses the highest number of projects on forest land (4,330), followed by Punjab (3,250) and Haryana (2,561).
Conditions under which forests cleared widely ignored, penalties flawed…
The legal diversion of forest land is accentuated by illegal actions, which means many who get permission to cut down forests ignore the conditions imposed on them. The ministry of environment and forests failed to “appropriately discharge” its responsibilities in monitoring forest-clearance laws related to diversion, said a Comptroller and Auditor General report. “In our opinion (the) penal clause prescribed in the Forest (Conservation) Act, 1980, was largely inadequate and ineffective to put (sic) any deterrence towards illegal and unauthorised practices,” the CAG report said. “Numerous instances of unauthorized renewal of leases, illegal mining, the continuance of mining leases despite adverse comments in the monitoring reports, projects operating without environment clearances, unauthorized change of status of forest land and arbitrariness in decisions of forestry clearances were observed.” The IISc’s Ramachandra illustrated how a project that did not do what it should have caused widespread ecological destruction: “A vast tract of forests with evergreen species in central Western Ghats was given on lease to a paper industry,” he said. “These forests were replaced with monoculture plantations that affected the livelihood of forest-dependent communities.” “A nexus of contractors, politicians and some corrupt forest officials is responsible for this situation,” said Ramachandra. “Scarcity of water and food insecurity is evident in many districts which have witnessed large scale deforestation with irresponsible forest diversions.” Experts said projects in forests should share benefits with people, and compensatory afforestation should factor in local livelihoods. “Plug all pilferages by proper accountability at all levels, adopt ecosystem approach and continuous ecological monitoring in Compensatory Afforestation,” said Saxena. Most experts said that, as far as possible, dense forests shouldn’t be diverted for developmental projects; and if the forest is diverted, the land should be afforested with native flora to reduce the impact of forest loss.
The Environment Act, 1986
The Indian Heritage and Culture has an intimate relation with the conservation and protection of the environment. The Indian State has also enshrined it in the Constitution which requires both the State and the Citizen to “protect and improve the environment”. The Environment Act, 1986 is one of those acts which extends to the whole of India without any exception.
Constitutional Interpretation of Environment: The 42nd Amendment to the Constitution of India added Article 48A and 51A (g) which comes under the Directive Principle of State Policy and the Fundamental Duties respectively. The Supreme Court of India in “Sachidanand Pandey v. State of West Bengal AIR 1987 SC 1109” stated that the Court is bound to bear in mind the above said articles whenever a case related to Environmental problem is brought to the Court. The Article 48A states: “The State shall endeavour to protect and improve the environment and to safeguard the forest and wildlife of the country.”The Article 51A (g) imposes a duty upon every citizen of India to protect and improve the natural environment and confers right to come before the Court for appropriate relief. The Apex Court in “Damodar Rao v. S.O. Municipal Corporation AIR 1987 AP 171” held that the environmental pollution and spoliation which is slowly poisoning and polluting the atmosphere should also be regarded as amounting to violation of Article 21 of the Indian Constitution.
Public Liability and Public Nuisance: “M.C. Mehta and Anr. Etc vs. Union of India and Ors. Etc 1986 SCR (1) 312” discusses the concept of Public Liability. This case is also known as Oleum Leakage Case. It is a landmark judgment in which the principle of Absolute Liability was laid down by the Supreme Court of India. The Court held that the permission for carrying out any hazardous industry very close to the human habitation could not be given and the industry was relocated. The instant case evolved the “Deep Pocket Principle”. This judgment guided the Parliament to add a new chapter to the Factory Act, 1948. The Public Liability Act was passed and the policy for the Abatement of Pollution Control was also established. When the Directive Principles of State Policy has clear statutory expressions then the Court will not allow Municipal Government to make fun of the Statutes by sitting idly. It was decided by the Supreme Court in the “Municipal Corporation, Ratlam vs. Vardhichand AIR 1980 SC 1622”. The plea of lack of fund will be poor alibi when people in misery cry for justice. The office in charge and even the elected representatives will have to face a penalty if they violate the constitutional and other statutory directives.
Sustainable Development: The Bench of Justices PN Bhagwati and Ranganath Mishra in “Rural Litigation and Entitlement Kendra, Dehradun vs. State of Uttar Pradesh AIR 1987 SC 2187” introduced the concept of “Sustainable Development”. An NGO named RLEK filed a case against limestone quarrying in the valley in 1987. It was stated that the permanent assets of mankind are not to be exhausted in one generation. The natural resources should be used with requisite attention and care so that ecology and environment may not be affected in any serious way.
Environmental Impact Assessment: Justice Jeevan Reddy in the landmark judgment of “Indian Council for Enviro-Legal Action vs. Union of India AIR 1999 SC 1502” held that the financial costs of preventing or remedying damage caused by pollution should lie with the undertakings which cause the pollution by adopting the “Polluter Pays Principle”. The Court set a time limit for the coastal states to formulate coastal management plans and banned industrial or construction activity within 500 metres of the High Tide Line.
Water Pollution: The writ petition filed by the activist advocate M.C. Mehta in the Supreme Court highlighted the pollution of the Ganga river by the hazardous industries located on its banks. Justice ES Venkataramiah gave a historic judgment in “M.C. Mehta vs. Union of India AIR 1988 SCR (2) 538” ordering the closure of a number of polluting tanneries near Kanpur. In this judgment it was observed that just like an industry which cannot pay minimum wages to its workers cannot be allowed to exist, a tannery which cannot setup a primary treatment plant cannot be permitted to continue to be in existence.
Animal Welfare: The Hon’ble Supreme Court in prohibited Jallikattu and other animal races and fights. It was observed that the Bulls cannot be performing animals in the case of “Animal Welfare Board of India vs. A. Nagaraj and Ors. (2014) 7 SCC 547”.The court alluded to the section 3 and section 11 of the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals Act, 1960 and declared that animal fights incited by humans are illegal, even those carried out under the guise of tradition and culture. The Court listed various recommendations and overhauled the penalties and punishment in the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals Act, 1960 to function effectively.
Air Pollution: The pride of India and one of the wonders of the world i.e., Taj Mahal, was facing threat due to high toxic emissions from Mathura Refineries, Iron Foundries, Glass and other chemical industries. The acid rain was a serious threat to the Taj Mahal and 255 other historic monuments within the Taj Trapezium. The Apex Court in “M.C. Mehta vs. Union of India (Taj Trapezium Case) AIR 1987” delivered its historic judgment in 1996 giving various directions including banning the use of coal and cake and directing the industries to Compressed Natural Gas (CNG).
Environmental Awareness and Education Case: The Supreme Court in “M.C. Mehta vs. Union of India WP 860/1991” ordered the Cinema theatres all over the country to exhibit two slides free of cost on environment in each show. Their licenses will be cancelled if they fail to do so. The Television network in the country will give 5 to 7 minutes to televise programmes on environment apart from giving a regular weekly programme on environment. Environment has become a compulsory subject up to 12th standard from academic session 1992 and University Grants Commission will also introduce this subject in higher classes in different Universities.
Wildlife and Forest Protection Case: The livelihood of forest dwellers in the Nilgiri region of Tamil Nadu was affected by the destruction of forests. The Supreme Court in “TN Godavarman Thirumulpad vs. Union of India and Ors.” passed a series of directions since 1995, till the final judgment in 2014.The Apex Court decided to set up a Compensatory Afforestation Funds Management and Planning Authority (CAMPA) to monitor the afforestation efforts, to oversee compensation to those who suffered on account of deforestation, and to accelerate activities for preservation of natural forests. A writ petition was filed by the Tarun Bharat Sangh in the Supreme Court to stop mining activities in the Sariska Wildlife Sanctuary. The Court in the case of “The Tarun Bharat Sangh vs. Union of India and Ors. (1991)” banned all the mining activities in the Sanctuary.
Public Trust and Right to Life: The Bench of Justices Kuldip Singh and Sagir Ahmed held that the Government violated the Doctrine of Public Trust in “M.C. Mehta vs. Kamal Nath and Ors. (1996)”. The Himachal Pradesh State Government had leased out a protected forest area on the bank of river Beas to motels, for commercial purposes. In 1996, the Supreme Court passed a judgment that would hold the State more responsible for maintaining natural resources. The Right to Pollution Free Environment was declared to be a part of Right to Life under Article 21 of the Constitution of India in the case of “Subhash Kumar vs. State of Bihar and Ors. (1991)”. Right to Life is a Fundamental Right which includes the Right of enjoyment of pollution free water and air for full enjoyment of life.
Some important cases
• Sanitation in Ratlam: In a landmark judgment in 1980, the Supreme Court explicitly recognised the impact of a deteriorating urban environment on the poor. It linked basic public health facilities to human rights and compelled the municipality to provide proper sanitation and drainage. However, according to numerous reports, little has changed in Ratlam today.
• Doon valley quarrying: In 1987, the Rural Litigation and Entitlement Kendra, on the behalf of residents of the Doon valley, filed a case in the Supreme Court against limestone quarrying. This case was the first requiring the Supreme Court to balance environmental and ecological integrity against industrial demands on forest resources. The courts directed the authorities to stop quarrying in the Mussoorie hills, but today, mining continues unchecked in the interior valleys.
• Gas leak in Shriram factory: In the historic case of the oleum gas leak from the Shriram Food and Fertiliser factory in Delhi, in 1986, the Supreme Court ordered the management to pay compensation to the victims of the gas leak. The "absolute liability" of a hazardous chemical manufacturer to give compensation to all those affected by an accident was introduced in this case and it was the first time compensation was paid to victims.
• Construction in Silent Valley: In 1980, the Kerala High Court threw out a writ filed by the Society for the Protection of the Silent Valley seeking a ban on construction of a hydro-electric project in the valley. However, despite an unfavourable judgment, active lobbying and grassroots action by environmentalists stopped the project.
• Polluting the Ganga: In 1985, activist-advocate MC Mehta filed a writ petition in the Supreme Court to highlight the pollution of the Ganga by industries and municipalities located on its banks. In a historic judgment in 1987, the court ordered the closure of a number of polluting tanneries near Kanpur. Justice E S Venkataramiah, in his judgment, observed: “Just like an industry which cannot pay minimum wages to its workers cannot be allowed to exist, a tannery which cannot set up a primary treatment plant cannot be permitted to continue to be in existence.”
• Pollution in Bichhri: Effluents from an H-acid factory in Bichhri village in Rajasthan has polluted the ground water of almost 60 wells, destroying crops and orchards. A case was filed in the Supreme Court by the Indian Council for Enviro-Legal Action in October 1989. Despite court orders in March 1990 to remove the sludge from the factory, not only does the sludge still pollute Bichhri's drinking water, but no compensation has been paid to the residents either.
• Mining in Sariska: A writ petition was filed in the Supreme Court in 1991 by the Tarun Bharat Sangh to stop mining in the Sariska wildlife sanctuary. The court banned mining in the sanctuary, but mining continues nevertheless.