The Compensatory Afforestation Fund Bill, which seeks to manage the distribution of unutilised funds to the tune of Rs 42,000 crore that were collected for compensatory afforestation, was passed by the Rajya Sabha on Thursday. The contentious bill has been opposed by adivasi rights activists as well as environmentalists.

What is compensatory afforestation?

As the name suggests, compensatory afforestation is a way to make up for forest land that was diverted for “non- forest purposes”. The Forest (Conservation) Act, 1980, restricts “non forest purpose” to cultivation of tea, coffee, spices, rubber, palms, oil-bearing plants, horticultural crops or medicinal plants and any purpose other than reforestation. Thus, whenever a forest land is to be used for such purposes, the Act stipulates that another non-forest land has to be afforested as a compensatory measure.

What led to creation of Compensatory Afforestation Fund Management and Planning Authority?

Compensatory Afforestation Fund Management and Planning Authority, or CAMPA, was constituted by a direction of the Supreme Court dated October 30, 2002, asking the government to create a fund where all the payments received towards compensatory afforestation, additional compensatory afforestation, penal compensatory afforestation and net present value of the diverted forest land will be deposited. The net present value is the amount that someone has to pay for diverting forest land for non-forest purposes. The amount will be determined by an expert committee appointed by the Centre.

The bill further states that all money received from "additional compensatory afforestation" and "catchment area treatment plan" may be used for site specific schemes submitted by the state. The bill does not defines these terms, thus adding more uncertainty to its clauses.

The fund was created by a notification issued by the Ministry of Environment and Forests in 2004. Even though it had been constituted on paper, it became operational only after the Supreme Court intervened once again in 2006 and ordered the constitution of an ad-hoc CAMPA. It also directed that all the funds deposited on behalf of CAMPA to other departments/state governments would be transferred to the account managed by the authority.

Implementation issues

The Comptroller and Auditor General audited compensatory afforestation in India and submitted a report highlighting various problems. The CAG found out that only 61% of the fund released by the ad-hoc CAMPA had been utilised. It also highlighted the lack of efforts by the government in promoting compensatory afforestation and the rampant unauthorised usage of land for mining purposes instead of afforestation. The report showed that the Ministry of Environment and Forests was unable to monitor the unauthorised activities and that there were hardly any penalties imposed by it.

Previous attempts

This is not the first time that the Compensatory Afforestation Fund Bill has been introduced. In May 2008, the bill was introduced for the first time under the previous Congress-led UPA government, but was not cleared in the Rajya Sabha due to various reasons. Eight years later, around the same time, the Compensatory Afforestation Fund Bill 2015 was again introduced before the Lok Sabha, under the Bharatiya Janata Party-led NDA government, and was cleared before it in May and has now been passed by the Rajya Sabha as well.

This bill seeks to establish a National Fund for Compensatory Afforestation under the Public Accounts of India and a State Fund under the public account of each state. The National Fund will receive 10% of the money collected towards compensatory afforestation and related payments, while the remaining 90% will go to various state funds.

The bill proposes that the funds that will be collected will be used for afforestation, wildlife protection and to regenerate forests, among other things. The bill seeks to use the unspent amount collected by the authority and receive further payments for compensatory afforestation, net present value of forest and other project specific payments.

What the bill overlooks

That a bill is needed for compensatory afforestation is not in doubt, but several problems need to be addressed before it is made into a law. The Parliamentary Standing Committee, in its 277th Report, had stated that there might be a situation where not enough land may be available for afforestation purposes. To address this contingency, it was recommended a specific provision in the bill “for encouraging densification and revitalisation of available forest closest to areas where deforestation is considered unavoidable on account of critically important national projects.”

The 2015 bill does not tackle this issue. So, if there is no land available for afforestation in the state, as per the Forest Conservation Rules, a degraded forest can be chosen, but it has to be twice the size of the diverted forest.

Another problem is that CAMPA will largely comprise members of forest departments. There is not adequate representation of the tribal people, environmentalists, subject experts and academics. This was also highlighted in the CAG report, which also looked at several regulatory shortcomings with regard to the implementation of afforestation works and effective monitoring. The report further pointed out unauthorised diversion of forest land for mining.

With a largely bureaucratic setup, there is a high possibility that the aforementioned irregularities may be repeated despite the new bill.

Moreover, the bill does not consider the provisions of the Scheduled Tribes and Other Traditional Forest Dwellers (Recognition of Forest Rights) Act, 2006. Ideally, the provisions of the bill should have been read along with this Act – which recognises their right over the land that they have inhabited for decades – to ensure that there is no exploitation of the tribal people who are given heritable rights under the Act.

The bill, instead, completely ignores this Act, which could be extremely detrimental to the interests of tribals, since the lands may now be acquired very easily for compensatory afforestation purposes without consulting the forest dwellers and addressing their concerns.