Today's Editorial

Today's Editorial - 24 March 2023

Compensatory Afforestation in India

Source: By Amitabh Sinha: The Indian Express

As part of its international climate change commitments, India has promised to increase its forest and tree cover to ensure that they are able to absorb an additional amount of 2.5 billion to 3 billion tonnes of carbon dioxide equivalent by 2030. Unlike the two other commitments India has made — one related to improvement in emissions intensity and the other about the deployment of renewable energy — the forestry target is a relatively difficult one to achieve.

Forests are under stress due to the need for rapid industrial and infrastructure development, and accompanying urbanisation. In the last 10 years, more than 1,611 square km of forest land, a little more than the area of Delhi, has been cleared for infrastructure or industrial projects. Nearly a third of this — 529 sq km — has been cleared in the last three years itself.

But government data also shows that total forest cover had increased by 1,540 square km in the two years between 2019 and 2021.

number of tree plantationafforestation and reforestation programmes are being implemented to increase India’s forest and tree cover. These include the Green India Missionnational afforestation programme, and the tree plantation exercises along the highways and railways. Other flagship government programmes like the national rural employment guarantee scheme (MGNREGS) and Namami Gange also have significant afforestation components.

What is Compensatory Afforestation?

But the showpiece effort for extending India’s forest cover has been its compensatory afforestation programme that seeks to ensure that forest lands getting ‘diverted’ for non-forest purposes, like industrial or infrastructure development, is mandatorily accompanied by afforestation effort on at least an equal area of land.

While the plantation exercise on new lands cannot be compared with the fully grown forests getting divertedcompensatory afforestation — made a legal requirement through the Compensatory Afforestation Fund Act of 2016 — does ensure that newer parcels of land are earmarked for developing them as forests. Project developerspublic or private, are required to fund the entire afforestation activity on these new lands.

The law also acknowledges the fact that newly afforested land cannot be expected to immediately start delivering the range of goods and services — timberbamboofuelwoodcarbon sequestrationsoil conservationwater recharge, and seed dispersal — that the diverted forests were providing. As a result, project developers are also asked to pay for the Net Present Value (NPV) of the forests being cleared, based on a calculation decided by an expert committee. According to the recently revised calculations, companies have to pay NPV at rates ranging between Rs 9.5 lakh and Rs 16 lakh per hectare, depending on the quality of forests getting diverted.

Some other fees and charges are also levied

All this money is meant to be spent solely on increasing, or improving the quality offorest cover in the country, or on works that help this objective. The money is parked in special funds created for this purpose at the Central and state levels. The money is first deposited in the Central fund, from where it gets disbursed to states where the projects are located. The Central fund can keep up to 10 per cent of the total money for spending towards administrative expenses. The rest has to be sent to the states according to their share.

Critics say compensatory afforestation had legitimised clearing of forests, and see it as an example of ‘greenwashing’. The contrary view is that since the clearing of forests for one or the other purpose cannot be entirely eliminated, compensatory afforestation is a good mechanism for attempting to make up for these losses to some extent.

Huge money for Compensatory Afforestation

The compensatory afforestation law came into being only in 2016, but the concept has existed since the 1980s, as an offshoot of the Forest Conservation Act of 1980, which made it mandatory for project developers to seek ‘clearance’ of the Environment Ministry for any diversion of forest land. The practice got institutionalised through the Supreme Court orders and observations during the hearings of the famous Godavarman case in the 1990s and 2000s.

But due to other litigation, the money collected for compensatory afforestation before 2016 had remained largely unutilised. Serious work on compensatory afforestation has begun only after the 2016 Act.

More than Rs 66,000 crore has been realised in the Central fund through different levies prescribed in that law. A substantial part of this — nearly Rs 55,000 crore — has already been sent to the state governments. But as the accompanying investigative report shows, much of this money remains locked in state government funds.

State governments have to prepare an annual plan of operations for afforestation work through this money. The APOs contain details of money that is intended to be spent during a financial year for specific works related to afforestation. Once this plan gets approval from the Compensatory Afforestation Management and Planning Authority (CAMPA) at the Central level, the state government transfers the approved amounts to the state forest departments, which then carry out the work. Government records show that APOs by the state governments have not made full utilisation of the funds at their disposal, and even the money approved for this APOs has not been entirely spent.

Sporadically, there have also been allegations of misutilisation or diversion of these funds, and in some cases investigations have been ordered.

Other problems with the practice

Besides the low utilisation of fundslack of availability of suitable land remains the biggest problem for compensatory afforestation, as has been brought out in investigations as well. The land that is made available for afforestation usually cannot be used for any other purpose, and is often extremely unsuitable for growing plantations. While there are examples of some good plantations having come up, the poor quality of land poses a difficult challenge in most instances.

Also, while the law mandates at least an equal area of land to be provided for compensatory afforestation, rarely is a contiguous stretch of land made available for this purpose. The total area of land is often distributed over twenty or more different locations. Even if very good plantations were grown, these can never be compared to the kind of forests that often get diverted.

Then there are other problems as well. Activists working on the ground complain that often the plantations are monocultures, meaning they contain only one species of plants. A key element of any forest is biodiversity. Forest officials on the other hand point to biotic pressures, referring to the challenge the plantations face from nearby human habitations and cattle.