Since the abrogation of Article 370 in Jammu and Kashmir on August 5, the Forest Advisory Committee (FAC) of the state approved forest clearances for 125 projects in just three meetings, between August and October 2019. The number of clearances given by FAC in its last three meetings are said to be higher than the total clearances approved in 2018 (97 projects over eight meetings).

“Obviously, these seem to have been done in a hurry. The motive was ulterior, forest conservation was clearly not a concern here,” said Rtd. Principal Chief Conservator Forests, Vinay Tandon.

Diversion of forest land in India is governed by the provisions under Forest (Conservation) Act, 1980 (FCA). However, the FCA does not apply to the state of Jammu and Kashmir. Instead, forest clearances in the state are governed by the J&K Forest (Conservation) Act, 1997 and diversion takes place based on the state cabinet’s resolution and the state FAC’s recommendation.

To recognise the rights of local communities whose livelihoods are inextricably linked to the forest lands they inhabit, the central government enacted the Scheduled Tribes and Other Traditional Forest Dwellers (Recognition of Forest Rights) Act, 2006, more commonly known as the Forest Rights Act (FRA). In addition to the Forest Conservation Act, the Forest Rights Act does not apply to Jammu and Kashmir either.

The recent forest clearances approved in Jammu and Kashmir have been for infrastructural development projects such as laying of transmission lines and drilling of tube wells. However, the pursuit of development, both infrastructural and otherwise, has been threatening the livelihoods of local communities who reside in these forests.

As Vimlendu Jha, the founder of Swechha organisation that works on issues of sustainable development and social change points out, “This is not the story of just one state.” Even with the application of the FCA and FRA in the rest of the country, he stated, “It has actually been happening in several other states of India.”

“Of course, the government on paper claims the green cover has been increasing year after year. But the forest cover has reduced and the culprit is the state itself, where the government is actually giving this land for development activities,” he told The Citizen.

“There are several areas where forest clearance has become a norm and has been a response to development and unfortunately, the government takes pride in this,” Jha continued. Whether it is mining activity in Chhattisgarh, or widening of roads in Uttarakhand, forests and the local communities who inhabit these lands suffer the consequences of the government-backed development projects that are meant to benefit the citizens of India.

As per official data revealed in Rajya Sabha in December 2018, over 20,000 hectares of forest land was approved for clearance in three years, between 2015-2018. These clearances were approved for various activities such as mining, irrigation, railways, building roads, thermal power plants, transmission lines and hydel projects.

“Like in most “development”, the poor/marginal people end up paying a heavy price. This is because the idea of development is to build over forests with cement and steel. Even where local materials are available, cement/steel is preferred,” said Tandon.

As per the FCA, any diversion of land for non-forest purposes has to be pre-approved by the Advisory Committee instituted under the Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change (MoEFCC). Proposals seeking diversion of forest land upto 40 hectares are processed by regional offices of MoEFCC under the instituted Regional Empowered Committees (REC). Proposals that pertain to diversion of land greater than 40 hectares are sent directly to the central ministry.

Explaining the process of granting forest clearances in Rajya Sabha in 2018, Mahesh Sharma, erstwhile Minister of State in MoEFCC stated, “Proposals for diversion of forest land for non-forestry purposes under the Forest (Conservation) Act, 1980 are received in the Ministry from the concerned States & UTs. The proposals are examined in the Ministry and after due diligence the proposals are either approved or rejected within the framework of Forest (Conservation) Act, 1980 and its supporting rules and guidelines.”

In 2009, the MoEFCC linked provisions for obtaining forest clearances under FCA to the provisions in FRA. The Ministry made documentary evidence compulsory to prove that the due process, as stipulated under FRA, has been completed. The provisions under the FRA attempt to prevent eviction or displacement of forest dwellers without their consent or due recognition of their rights. The Act provides local communities residing in forests with rights pertaining to local governance and management of forest land and produce, including access to land and use of resources.

In 2014, the District Collector was made responsible for obtaining consent for the project from affected Gram Sabhas. The clearance of any project was contingent on obtaining consent from the forest dwellers, both for diversion of forest land as well as for proposed compensation measures.

As per a legislative brief prepared by the environment action group, Kalpavriksh, this process is time-consuming and a “major hurdle” for the government. “The role of the Ministry has increasingly begun to be focused on fast-tracking projects and streamlining the process of obtaining clearances and providing easy access to environmental and forest clearances,” the brief states.

To ease the process of obtaining clearances for industries, there has been an alleged dilution of the provisions under the FCA and FRA. “The FCA has been resented by most departments and by politicians since its inception,” stated Tandon. He further linked this resentment to the “gradual dilution” of the FCA and institution of “pliable Advisory Committees.”

“It is a direct attack on forests and we have actually seen over the years that form of attack in a very organised way, going through a policy route to take over several parts of our forests,” Jha told The Citizen.

Prakash Javadekar, the incumbent Minister for Environment, Forest and Climate Change, speaking at the Annual Conference on Chemical and Disaster Management (CIDM) 2019, stated that the process of granting environmental and forest clearances will be eased and made faster, reducing the time taken to obtain clearances from 108 to 70-80 days.

Speaking about the forest clearance process, Tandon said, “Forest clearances do compel the authorities to consider less damaging alternatives; they also recommend ameliorative steps. However, clearances which come with a number of conditions are difficult to monitor and the project proponents get away without actually fulfilling many of the conditions.”

The approval for forest clearances occurs in two stages—the in-principle approval followed by the final approval. The MoEFCC issued a notice last December stating that the in-principle approval in the initial stage of a project does not need to comply with FRA provisions.

This letter by Shrawan Kumar Verma, Deputy Inspector General of Forest was sent to the government of Maharashtra post receiving information that many coal mining projects of Western Coalfields Ltd. were being stalled, unable to progress due to FRA guidelines.

The Ministry of Tribal Affairs raised the argument that this was, in effect, a dilution of the FRA and gravely endangered the rights of tribal communities residing in forests as the project would have progressed by the second stage. Several times, private corporations have been allegedly accused of beginning the clearance of concerned forest land even before the forest clearance proposal has been approved.

As a compensation for the cleared forest land, there is a provision under the FCA for compensatory afforestation to be carried out by state governments on non-forest land of an area equal to that of the diverted forest land. Compensatory afforestation comes under the Compensatory Afforestation Fund Management and Planning Authority (CAMPA). According to Tandon, “This CAMPA is again target driven with little to show by way of actual achievement on the ground.”

“Huge funds have been collected under CAMPA and are now being given to the states to carry out 'compensatory' afforestation, whether or not the states are in a position to do so and have available non-forest land,” Tandon told The Citizen.

“Also, like in all other afforestation schemes of government, there is no record or monitoring of the survival of plantations done and so we really do not know whether actual afforestation is taking place. Many states do not even have plantable nursery stock to take up large scale afforestation which has to be done within a financial year, whereas it takes a year to grow a sapling to a plantable size!” he exclaimed.

This provision too has been allegedly diluted. As per an order dated May 22, 2019, forest-rich states, with more than 75 percent of the geographical area under forest cover do not need to provide non-forest land equal to the area of diverted forest land. Instead, the compensatory afforestation can be taken up in another state or union territory that does not have such large a forest cover.

This directive eases the process for development projects that are blocked due to a lack of non-forest land in a state necessary to undertake the compensatory afforestation.

Jha, a “strong critic” of compensatory afforestation stated, “You cannot manufacture a forest over time.” According to him, compensatory afforestation is not done in the manner in which it is portrayed on paper. “In principle, there is a problem with compensatory afforestation because the full grown tree or a forest which has its own ecosystem cannot be compensated ecologically by plantation work,” Jha told The Citizen.

There is a “long-lasting regional imbalance” on the country’s ecology due to the degradation of forest cover, he said. However, apart from the ecological imbalance it creates, diversion of forest land gravely impacts the lives of local communities and tribal groups residing in these areas. The lives of these communities are tied to the land they inhabit as the forests are not only their source of income, but are also the areas where their deities reside.

“This clearance might in fact seem to be just clearing of trees but it’s not. It’s a clearing of ecology and a clearing of sustainability of different kinds—of livelihoods of most marginalised communities that exist in these forests,” stated Jha.

“The price that has to be paid is by these tribals who actually don’t have any ownership rights but only custodial rights over the forest land, because they have been living in them. They don't have the papers, in the sense that they don't have any property rights over the forests. And the government takes advantage of that and stakes claim on this piece of land,” he said.

The government’s tryst with development therefore, has consistently threatened the livelihoods of local communities. How can the government strike a balance between conservation of forests and development activities?

“This is difficult in a country where development has been carried out at the cost of the environment historically,” said Tandon. “Politicians do not understand 'environment' and only pay lip service. In the last few decades we have had doses of judicial activism on environmental concerns but that too is running out of steam with a more pliant judiciary and Advisory bodies, including of Wildlife, eager to do the government's bidding,” he told The Citizen.

“Representative democracy has clearly not worked out in India. To make it work we need a heavy and regular dose of reforms which our elected governments seem increasingly incapable of,” Tandon stated.

While development activities form a sizeable chunk of the political parties’ manifestos, the voices of local communities and tribal groups continue to be silenced. In the midst of faster forest clearances and countless tales of conflict between forest dwellers and government-backed private corporations attempting to displace them from their forests, the larger question remains—what does ‘development’ truly mean for tribal communities?