Coal-laden trucks at an open-cast coal mine in Ramgarh, Jharkhand.Half of India’s forests, literally ‘no-go’ areas for industry, will be opened up for coal mining. This is the first major step in the elaborate blueprint for change in the country’s environment policies that the Narendra Modi Government plans to roll out fast. The message to the environment ministry is clear-facilitate, mediate, but don’t obstruct.
Prakash Javadekar, the man incharge at Paryavaran Bhawan, got this message when he was hardly paying attention to the portfolio in his first month as minister. He was rarely seen in the ministry, files remained pending for weeks, officials had no clear directions, committees were not constituted and it seemed almost rudderless. He once remarked in the corridors of Parliament that he did not like going to the environment ministry because “NGOs and lobbyists hound him”.
The Prime Minister’s Office (PMO) was not impressed. And in due course, Javadekar, the information and broadcasting minister, was reminded, rather effectively, that he is also the country’s environment minister. That was in mid-August and the turnaround since has been remarkable.
The controversial ‘go, no-go’ forest area concept introduced by Jairam Ramesh as environment minister in 2010 is the first policy set for reinterpretation, a move that will open up huge swathes of forest land for mining-half the ‘no-go’ areas to be precise. Coal is a mineral on priority but the environment ministry has asked for detailed mapping of forest land bearing iron ore and manganese so that mining of these can also be ‘streamlined’.
The big policy move is expected to flow from a declaration very soon that will specify just how much of India’s forested area is ‘inviolate’-essentially, forests that are hundreds of years old, housing rich biodiversity and cannot be regenerated or reclaimed by human effort. INDIA TODAY has learnt that the Forest Survey of India (FSI), at the instance of the environment ministry, has assessed that while 30 per cent of coal-bearing forest land was made out of bounds by the ‘go, no-go’ concept, the new ‘inviolate-violate’ formulation would bring this area down by half or roughly 15-17 per cent.
The FSI is believed to have suggested that only pristine forests would largely qualify as inviolate under the new formulation, which means not more than 6 per cent of India’s geographical area. The trick behind the change is the tweaking of criteria which defines the inviolate category. A 2012 committee under former environment secretary T. Chatterjee-tasked to formulate objective parameters for identification of inviolate forest areas-had come up with six “measurable” parameters to make this assessment. These were: forest type, biological richness, wildlife value, forest cover, landscape integrity and hydrological value.
But soon after the Modi Government took charge, the environment ministry decided to reduce the number of parameters to four-wildlife value was proposed to be clubbed with biological richness and hydrological value with forest cover as these parameters were thought to be overlapping. The ‘rationalising’ of parameters was done based on inputs from stakeholder ministries-the coal ministry was one of the first to voice its concerns over the committee’s report.
To identify such areas, the report had suggested dividing the whole country into one square km grids and scoring each grid on the six parameters. If the average score of a grid exceeds 70 out of 100, it shall be labelled ‘inviolate’ and if a majority of the grids in a mining block are ‘inviolate’, the block too will be labelled as such. But the area has come down drastically when measured against the four broader categories due to the rationalised calculation.
The Chatterjee committee was set up after the ‘go, no-go’ area concept was vetoed by a group of ministers of the UPA government following stiff opposition from the coal ministry. Reason: It would make more than 150 coal blocks spread across 2.68 lakh hectares of forest land ‘no-go’. The UPA withdrew the ‘go, no-go’ policy and proposed the violate-inviolate concept based on the parameters suggested by the Chatterjee committee. Inviolate meant the area was completely out of bounds for any kind of industrial, mining or development activity.
According to the FSI’s latest State of Forest Report last year, of India’s 21.23 per cent total forested area, 2.54 per cent is very dense forests, 9.7 per cent is moderately dense forests and the remaining 8.99 per cent is open forest area. While the very dense forest area would automatically be considered inviolate, areas with 70 per cent canopy cover under the huger swathes of moderately dense forests (MDF) could qualify as inviolate. However, even that put together would leave out massive areas open to be classified as ‘violate’ and therefore open to industrial and mining activities. The new Government arrived at this after deciding to prune the six measurable parameters to four.
In 2013, the ambitious Vedanta project to mine the Niyamgiri hills for bauxite had to be called off by the UPA government after 12 gram sabhas voted against it, an exercise mandated by the Supreme Court based on requirements of the Forest Rights Act (FRA). While those provisions remain, the Modi Government is working on a proposal to completely do away with gram sabha approvals at least for road, railway and power transmission line projects. Clubbed together, they are termed as linear projects.
The environment ministry has proposed that all linear projects be given the green nod based only on the district collector’s certificate rather than the more tedious and unpredictable gram sabha approval route. While similar proposals were discussed by the previous government, it failed to implement them due to the complete lack of consensus between stakeholder ministries. But given the power dynamics within this Government, consensus is not going to be an issue when faced with a diktat from the PMO.
As a result, for the first time, the tribal affairs ministry, that is the primary custodian of the FRA is also said to be coming around the view that gram sabha approval may be done away with for linear projects. The same ministry under UPA was strongly against any such dilution of the FRA.
What’s more, the environment ministry will also soon empower its various forest department regional offices to decide on their own on all clearances for projects spread across an area of no more than five hectares. Also, states have been asked to survey what are called “deemed forest areas” to determine whether they are actually forested or not.
While the Government has decided to press ahead full steam, the voice of protest is not far behind. The first salvo of resistance came against the reconstitution of the National Board of Wildlife (NBWL), and the issue has now reached the Supreme Court- only three new members were added to the body instead of the required 15. It included only one wildlife expert, R. Sukumar, besides Gujarat cadre IFS officer H.S. Singh and the Gujarat Ecological Education and Research (GEER) Foundation headed by Chief Minister Anandiben Patel in the independent NGO category.
Environment Minister Prakash Javadekar.Activists contend that such a body with a clear “Gujarat bias” will pursue a government agenda and not be sensitive to wildlife protection concerns. On the other hand, the board was defunct for a full year as the UPA government had failed to reconstitute it in time, holding up nearly 300 projects. Holding marathon meetings earlier this month, the newly constituted NBWL standing committee cleared more than 140 projects including National Highway widening projects, Teesta Stage IV and the long pending fencing of the India-Bangladesh border in Mizoram’s Dampa Tiger Reserve.
Next on the agenda of controversial issues is field trials for genetically modified crops and identifying the extent of Western Ghats to be declared as ecologically sensitive, where no industrial activity will be allowed. Any move in the direction of liberalising provisions is sure to attract opposition, not just from environment NGOs, but also from within the Sangh Parivar through outfits such as the Swadeshi Jagran Manch.
By all indications, Modi has decided to take on this political test. At least that’s the template he has set for Javadekar, who has dutifully communicated the same to his officials at an in-house meeting. “Don’t stop any project. If there’s a problem, don’t reject, send it back with advice on what’s lacking. We must facilitate development because development is the mood of the nation.” The message could not be clearer.