The Indian government has diverted over 20,000 hectares of forest area for developmental activities such as mining, thermal power plants, dams, road, railways and irrigation projects in the past three years (2015-’18) across India.

According to the official data revealed by the National Democratic Alliance government in Parliament in December 2018, a total of 20,314.12 hectares of forest land (almost the size of Kolkata) was diverted in three years 2015-2018 (till December 13, 2018). During this period, the ministry had received a total of 4,552 proposals and of those 1,280 (28.11%) got approved.

Under the Forest (Conservation) Act, 1980, forest areas can be diverted by the environment ministry for non-forestry purposes like mining. In lieu of the land, money is collected by the government which is then used by the authorities for afforestation.

But the diversion of forest land for developmental projects has always been a contentious issue and in the past 10 years the opposition to diversion has increased with environmentalists repeatedly alleging that the union environment ministry only works like a rubber stamp clearing whatever projects come to it, seeking diversion of the forest land.

However the ministry officials say this is untrue. “Many proposals are in different stages of approval. Contrary to popular belief, the ministry is very sensitive to giving clearance for diverting forests for non-forestry purposes,” said an environment ministry official on the condition of anonymity.

According to information revealed in the Parliament, Telangana topped the list with 5,137.38 hectares of forest land diverted, followed by Madhya Pradesh with 4,093.38 hectares and Odisha with 3,386.67 hectares of forest area diverted. The three states together account for over 62% (12,617.43 hectares) of the total forest land diverted during the said three-year period.

With close to 70.82 million hectares of forest area, about 21.54% of India’s land is under forest cover.

The reasons for diversion of forest area varied from irrigation, hydropower, road and railway projects to defence, mining, transmission line, schools and wind power projects. Of the total forest area diverted during the said time, the highest amount was diverted for irrigation projects, followed by mining and thermal power plants.

“Proposals for diversion of forest land for non-forestry purposes under the Forest (Conservation) Act, 1980 are received in the ministry from the concerned states and UTs [union territories]. The proposals are examined in the ministry [Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change] and after due diligence the proposals are either approved or rejected within the framework of Forest (Conservation) Act, 1980 and its supporting rules and guidelines,” said Indian government’s Minister of State in the Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change, Mahesh Sharma. while replying to a query in Parliament in December 2018.

Over 20,000 hectares of forest land diverted across India in three years for various projects including mining. Photo credit: Mayank Aggarwal/Mongabay India.
Over 20,000 hectares of forest land diverted across India in three years for various projects including mining. Photo credit: Mayank Aggarwal/Mongabay India.

According to another set of data of the environment ministry, since the enactment of the Forest Conservation Act 1980, nearly four decades ago, a total of about 1.51 million hectares has been diverted for 27,144 projects. To put it in perspective, it means forest land equivalent to over ten times the size of India’s national capital has been diverted in the last four decades for various kind of developmental projects.

Poor monitoring is a worrying factor

Environmentalists argue that they are not against country’s development but against the procedures and poor monitoring of the conditions on the basis of which such projects are cleared.

“Monitoring of conditions on basis of which forest land is diverted is an important factor but it is poorly done. There are enough cases to indicate that India’s environment ministry does not have the adequate wherewithal to monitor the land it diverts and the numerous conditions they put,” said Sanjay Upadhyay, a senior environmental lawyer in the Supreme Court and managing partner of the Enviro Legal Defence Firm.

“The mandate of the ministry is to be the conscience keeper for every piece of forest land and how it is to be protected. Somehow, we have got lost in the money that forest diversion brings! Forest and forest land are actually irreplaceable, let’s explore all alternatives before losing even an inch” he added.

The issue may find a mention in the Parliamentary elections that are scheduled in the first half of 2019. During his election campaign for 2014 polls, Prime Minister Narendra Modi had highlighted the slow pace of green clearances from the environment ministry and had promised to speed up the process and simplify it.

The NDA government led by Modi did exactly that once it came into power. Since 2014, the Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change has taken series of steps to ease clearance process for the industry as a result of which, by the end of 2017, the average processing time for green clearances came down from 580 days to 180 days. The Modi government has a target of bringing the average time for green clearances to under 100 days.

To speed up the green clearance process, the environment ministry, in August 2018, released standard environment clearance conditions for 25 industrial sectors including major ones like coal mines, oil and gas exploration and hydropower projects. In the same month, the prime minister had also launched PARIVESH (Pro-Active and Responsive facilitation by Interactive, Virtuous and Environmental Single-window Hub) – a single-window online system for green clearances, aimed at further speeding up the system.

This article first appeared on Mongabay.