Forest land nearly equal to the size of Nagaland has been approved for diversion between 2014 and 2020 or is pending to be approved for various infrastructure and developmental projects such as mining, irrigation, and regularisation of encroachments, according to an analysis by Vijay Ramesh, a PhD student at Columbia University.
Ramesh has analysed 48,000 clearance proposals using the R programming language (the raw data is available on GitHub). He sourced the forest clearance data from the Union environment ministry’s Parivesh website, which has details of all clearances divided into two sections—before 2014 and after 2014.
The ministry approved or continues to consider 99.3% of the project proposals it received involving forest diversion during the last six years compared to 84.6% of the projects that were considered and approved between 1975 and 2014. From 1975 to 2014, about 21632.5 sq km of forest land was approved to be cleared or is pending to be cleared, compared to 14822.47 sq km of forests approved between 2014 and 2020.
The analysis comes as the ministry is about to notify the controversial Environment Impact Assessment (EIA) Notification, 2020.
The notification is expected to overhaul the process of environmental regulation of infrastructure projects. It has contentious clauses including the one pertaining to the regularisation of projects, which violated the EIA Notification, 2006, by starting construction work before environmental clearance or by expanding capacity.
The draft EIA Notification, 2020, also proposes shortening of the time for public hearings, which give people affected by a project opportunity to understand it and give their consent.
Ramesh said the data suggests the proportion of forest areas stated to be cleared since 2014 is over 68% of what was cleared between 1975 and 2014.
“Over a 39 year period, the data suggests that 21,63,215 hectares of forests were approved/pending approval to be cleared. In stark comparison, since 2014, 14,82,247 hectares of forests were approved/pending approval to be cleared. Furthermore, this is simply what the ‘Forests’ clearance data suggests. We are yet to analyse data on ‘wildlife’ clearances and ‘environmental’ clearances,” he wrote in an email.
The analysis found that before 2014, most of the forest diversion was related to encroachments and mining while between 2014 and 2020, it has been mainly mining-led.
Before 2014, large chunks of forested land were approved for clearing in 1984, 1989, 1995 and 2006.
In 2016, forest area approved for clearing was more than double the area approved in 2006 alone, the analysis shows.
Andhra Pradesh, Telangana, Madhya Pradesh, Arunachal Pradesh and Himachal Pradesh are set to lose vast chunks of forest land, according to data on clearances between 2014 and 2020.
While forest and environmental clearance are not the same and EIA, 2020, would not apply to forest clearances, experts said a forest clearance is a prerequisite for environmental clearance in projects involving forests.
One of the main objectives of the draft is to bring those industries or projects under the regulation that have violated the EIA, 2006, notification by starting construction work before environmental clearance was granted or by expanding capacity. Those that will be regularised will have to pay a late fee for violating norms.
The draft also increases the validity of the environment clearances. It provides clearance validity for 50 years for mining projects, against 30 years in the present notification; 15 years from river valley projects against 10 years.
Project proponents will have to submit clearance compliance reports once a year against every 6 months in the current system. No fresh studies by Expert Appraisal Committee should be asked for unless “new facts” come to the notice and it becomes “inevitable” to seek additional studies, the draft says.
But the draft is not entirely new. The environment ministry had come out with a zero draft of EIA, 2020, in April last year. Many of the clauses in the zero draft had already been introduced as amendments by the ministry earlier but were challenged in court because of their impact on environmental regulation.
Even in April when the zero draft was released, there was widespread criticism of the clauses and relaxations granted which could jeopardise ecology.
Environment secretary R P Gupta said he was unaware of this analysis but added India is one of the least industrialised countries. “Our GDP is much less than the GDP of developed countries. 60% of our population remains in the agriculture sector. So, if industrialisation is increasing, what is wrong with it? Why does not he [Ramesh] deindustrialise the US? I can add that there are vested interests who do not want people to enjoy the fruit of industrialisation,” he said.
Kanchi Kohli, a legal researcher with New Delhi’s Centre for Policy Research, said if forest land is involved in any project seeking environment clearance, forest clearance has to be sought before the former comes into effect.
“Project proponents also have to disclose the break-up of forest and non-forest land in question… In recent years, there has been a huge burden on non-forest land for setting up projects. Many solar parks are on revenue commons important for grazing. In coastal areas, areas affected by ports, coastal roads, or tourism projects include entire fishing villages and traditional fishing harbours. Yet, there is no formal record available for the amount of land-use change being approved in the name of environment clearances.”
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