Weeks before India’s environment ministry gave permission for 130 sq km of tropical forests to be cleared to make way for development projects on the Great Nicobar Island in the Indian Ocean, the chief minister of Haryana, a landlocked state 2,400 km away, was already announcing plans for how the money raised from the deforestation would be used.

Speaking to reporters on October 6, chief minister Manohar Lal Khattar said the funds would be used to build “the world’s largest curated safari”. Ten thousand acres of land, not too far from the national capital, had already been identified for the project, he said: “6,000 acres from Gurguram district and 4,000 from Nuh.”

The safari would feature ten zones, one each for reptiles, birds, underwater species, exotic animals, a nature trail, and a botanical garden. Along with tigers, lions and panthers, it would also house cheetahs, the chief minister said, adding that efforts were underway to source the world’s fastest animals.

The press conference was held weeks after the Prime Minister had released cheetahs from Namibia in a national park in Madhya Pradesh, and days after Khattar had returned from a trip to the Sharjah Safari Park in the United Arab Emirates with India’s environment minister Bhupender Yadav. Khattar, in fact, first announced the state’s plans to build a jungle safari the day he visited Sharjah.

The first public announcement of the proposed jungle safari in Haryana was made by chief minister Manohar Khattar on September 29.

In the press conference, Khattar said the plans for the jungle safari had been drawn up in consultation with Yadav. The Centre, he claimed, had asked Haryana if it would be willing to “develop a forest area” to compensate for the loss of forests in Nicobar. It is through the funds that Haryana will receive from “CAMPA” – the Compensatory Afforestation Management and Planning Authority – that “this large-scale safari will be made operational,” Khattar said.

A contentious proposal

India’s forest conservation law mandates that whenever forests are cleared for developmental or industrial projects, trees must be planted over an equal area of non-forest land to compensate for the ecological loss. The agency responsible for the deforestation must transfer funds to a government authority, which in turn redirects them to the agency planting the trees. This process is called “compensatory afforestation”, even though environmentalists point out that plantations can never compensate for the loss of natural forests.

The proposal to create a jungle safari in Haryana using compensatory afforestation funds raised in Nicobar is being seen as especially contentious.

To start with, the two territories lie 2,400 km apart, in completely different climatic zones. Although there is no legal bar on compensatory afforestation funds raised in one state being used in another, experts point out that the geographic isolation of the Nicobar Islands has endowed them with a unique biodiversity – of about 2,200 varieties of plants recorded in the Islands, 200 are rare native species, and 1,300 do not occur in mainland India.

Nicobar Treeshrew is an endangered species endemic to the Nicobar Islands. Photo: Shreeram MV/ Wikimedia Commons

“This proposal for compensatory afforestation in Haryana in lieu of this ecological and social loss in the Islands is devoid of any logic,” said Tushar Dash, a forest rights researcher.

Further, government agencies are legally bound to seek approval from the environment ministry for both tree-felling and compensatory afforestation plans.

At the time when Khattar made the announcement of the jungle safari, the Nicobar deforestation itself was awaiting approval. While the approval was granted twenty days later, on October 27, Haryana is yet to submit a detailed project report for the jungle safari, a state official confirmed.

More significantly, the Rules specifically prohibit the creation of jungle safaris using one of the two components of the compensatory afforestation funds. While one component of the funds is meant to compensate for the loss of trees, the other component, called the net present value or NPV receipts, is supposed to compensate for the loss of other environmental services rendered by the forest, like groundwater recharge and biodiversity.

The Compensatory Afforestation Fund Rules, 2018, provide a clear list of activities to which NPV funds can be allocated, and what they cannot be used for. “Establishment, expansion and up-gradation of zoo and wildlife safari” features in the latter list.

An ambiguous response

When asked about the legality of using Net Present Value funds for a jungle safari, Vivek Saxena, the chief executive officer of Haryana’s Compensatory Afforestation Fund Management and Planning Authority, said: “If Rules do not allow this transfer of funds for the safari, then we will not do it.”

He evaded response to a question about whether, in the absence of NPV funds, the remaining compensatory afforestation funds would be adequate for the safari.

“Currently, the jungle safari is in the planning stages,” Saxena said. “Only after the detailed project report is prepared and the site-specific plans are approved will we go ahead.”

Monetising ecology

While Haryana officials remain guarded about the specifics of the jungle safari project, environmentalists say it is an example of how India’s compensatory afforestation policies are far removed from serving ecological needs and are instead enabling states to harness forests for financial gains.

“The recent use of compensatory afforestation in Haryana for the Nicobar project does two things,” said Kanchi Kohli, senior researcher at the Centre for Policy Research. “It justifies the loss of biodiverse landscapes like the Nicobars, and also accommodates the aspirations of states like Haryana to convert land into plantations or recreational tourism such as safari parks.”

Kohli said both the deforestation in Nicobar and the recreational tourism in Haryana were attempts to monetise forests, “instead of compensating for ecological loss”.

Environmental researchers also question the viability of creating large-scale plantation projects in the Aravalli hills of Haryana, a region with dry soil and shorter rain spells. Manju Menon, a senior fellow with CPR, said, that a well planned soil and water conservation programme, with adequate deployment of staff and resources, would be required to make compensatory afforestation in the Aravallis work. “The question is whether such resources can be made available over the long term and if this land use is the most appropriate given all other competing demands,” she said.

Haryana has a poor track record of compensatory afforestation. According to the State of Forest reports, Haryana’s total forest cover had remained steady over the past decade and half. It was 1,604 sq km in 2005, and 1,603 sq km in 2021.

This even came up in a meeting of the state’s compensatory afforestation authority in April 2022. The state’s additional chief secretary for science and technology, Ashok Khemka remarked that “despite large scale forest plantations in Haryana, the forest cover over the last two decades is flat…with no increase.”

Khemka recommended that the state forest department “review its modus operandi before infusing large scale funds in business-as-usual planting.”

Government data shows only six or seven out of ten saplings planted along Haryana’s roads for compensatory afforestation projects survive. This survival rate is one of the worst in the country, according to data provided by the environment ministry in Rajya Sabha in March 2021.

The survival rate of saplings in the Andaman and Nicobar Islands isn’t much better. But the union territory is one of the greenest parts of India, and more importantly, features biodiversity not found on the mainland.

While granting approval for the clearing of 130.75 sq km of forest land in Great Nicobar – about a third of the island’s area – the Union environment ministry’s Forest Advisory Committee said it was needed for “sustainable development”. The Andaman and Nicobar Islands Administration aims to build Rs 75,000-crore worth projects – an International Container Transhipment Terminal, an airport, a power plant, and a new township – on the cleared land.

Manish Chandi, a research scholar who specialises on the interface of communities and natural environment in Nicobar Islands, said development is needed on the island. “Currently, the educational and medical facilities are dismal, and employment opportunities are few,” he said.

But he questioned the economic and ecological viability of the projects planned by the administration and pointed out that the island’s indigenous communities had not been consulted. “This Mega Development Project is not the kind of development needed,” he said.