Environment is often a low priority activity for government. This is more so because real and true environmental data is not reflected in our economic and financial accounts and plans.

The NDA government has been in the news for its changed regulations for mines and the laws pertaining to protection of forests, tribal rights and the environment. Accusations have flown thick about how mining is being conducted in India and the environment being compromised. sbcltr spoke to the Center for Science and Environment (CSE) to get a clear picture on the amended laws and how they truly affect the environment.

It has recently come to light that no prior clearance will be needed for stuck mining proposals in the country. How will this law affect the environment?
This was under deliberation among the Ministry of Mines and MoEF&CC. The issue for providing conditional clearances (only prospects discussed) was brought up during meeting of the Mines Ministry in September last year. The discussion was on expediting clearances for proposals that were awaiting grant of mining leases, subject to fulfilment of conditions of letter of intent. This included conditions for clearances as applicable or referred by the state governments.

Of course mining operations must only commence after obtaining all clearances and permits under the law. Because if operations start without a prior Environmental Clearance or Forest Clearance, then it will become fait accompli tactic.

The Government therefore must work towards making the clearance process streamlined and time bound, but without compromising on its effectiveness. No dilution should be made to execute proposals quickly.

Do you think Compensatory Afforestation Fund Management (CAMPA) and Net Present Value,  (NPV) are fair value determinants of forest ecosystems? If not, Why?
From an ecosystem services perspective, environmental losses as a result of deforestation in forests with density of 0.4 (40% canopy cover) have been calculated by MoEF&CC to be Rs 50.696 lakh over a period of 50 years, which translates into nearly Rs 1 lakh per ha per year. The global valuation of ecosystem services from forests has been estimated to be US $969 per ha per year (approximately Rs 64,980 at current exchange rate of Rs 67 per USD). Environmental losses include soil erosion, effect on hydrological cycle, wildlife habitat losses, microclimate changes, biodiversity losses, etc.  However, in its 2014 report on revision of Net Present Value of forests, Indian Institute of Forest Management had proposed Rs 9.87–26.97 lakh per hectare as the valuation of open forests with density ranging from 0.1 to 0.4 whereas the proposed values are Rs 13.41–55.55 lakh per hectare for denser forests.

Therefore, NPV and CAF (CAMPA) do not reflect true value of forestlands. More research into ecological and social values would be required to arrive at logical conclusions.

What is your take on recent allocation of funds to the state forest departments leaving out local and tribal communities based on the argument that giving monetary power to local govt would be ‘not practical’ for development?

What effects can such a measure have?

Given the past bad performances of CAMPA money (as detailed by CAG Report 21 on CAMPA in 2013), CAF funds being allocated to State Forest Departments will again lead to gross misappropriation of funds, unless local and tribal communities are involved in the process and get the actual monetary and ecological benefits from these interventions. Upcoming Compensatory Afforestation Fund (CAF) Rules being framed under CAF Act 2016 will be crucial to set the principles in this direction. Otherwise, communities will be left wanting again from these vary basic natural landscapes of survival.

Both, CAMPA and NPV promote ‘plantations’ in the name of ‘afforestation’. What will be the environmental consequences of this? What policy changes would you suggest?
‘Plantations’ are not ‘Forests’. Plantations, no matter how sensitively they are managed, take hundreds or thousands of years to shift to categories of forests. CAMPA and NPV do not consider this scientific fact and keep diverting rich natural forests on the name of compensatory afforestation.

Keeping India’s weak implementation system in mind, do you think the carbon sinks destroyed in the name of development would ever be compensated even if the compensations funds are justified?
Specifically with regard to carbon, to an extent plantations restore the carbon balance provided that the wood from harvested native forest is locked in long-term usage products such as furniture etc. But there is no consideration about other forest ecosystem services, carbon being only one of them.

CAG reported corruption with the CAF funds. What policy suggestions do you have for a controlled monitoring of CAF funds and ensuring that ‘rehabilitation’ of tribals and locals is achieved.
There must be social auditing and ecological monitoring of all CAF moneys spent.

CAF and NPA are both one time deposits. But industrialisation can be a habitat destroyer for tribals, locals and biodiversity. What other social responsibilities should the companies established for profit making be subjected to while giving forest clearances.
We must undertake a careful and scientific impact assessment of such projects on ecological, social and economic parameters. Industries then must be mandated to restore the losses to ecology and tribal economy.

As a summation, what do you think are the core challenges for India to combat environmental issues and really make a difference.
Environment is often a low priority activity for government. This is more so because real and true environmental data is not reflected in our economic and financial accounts and plans. The core challenge is to mainstream environment, forests, wildlife, tribal communities and water sources in our developmental planning and action. We must also see every human being, and all flora and fauna as partners of development rather than as constraints.

Inputs provided by Shreshtha Banerjee, Programme Manager, Environmental Governance and Ajay Kumar Saxena, Programme Manager, Environmental Governance-Forestry

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