The Rajya Sabha on Thursday passed the controversial Compensatory Afforestation Funds Bill, almost three months after the Lok Sabha gave the proposed legislation its assent. The Act provides the framework for the distribution of nearly Rs 42,000 crore for afforestation in states where forest land has been utilised for other purposes. To do so, it establishes Compensatory Afforestation Funds at the national and state levels to receive payments and also to spend funds acquired for compensatory afforestation.

Institutions and companies that cut trees in forest lands for development activities are required to pay the government to plant a certain number of saplings as compensation in a different area. Companies also pay the government the “net present value” of the forest, which is supposed to account for the monetary value of the ecosystem lost because of this activity.

Activists have argued that the Bill overrides the Forest Rights Act by permitting forest authorities to decide on afforestation projects without any structural safeguards that could ensure that they do not take place on land already used by forest communities, most often adivasis. There is also no provision to channel these funds to the locals.

The Supreme Court had in 2006 established an ad-hoc version of the Compensatory Afforestation Management Planning Authority, after the government delayed setting up the authority itself.

A report tabled in the Rajya Sabha in 2015 showed that no more than 6% of the funds gathered had been used. Of this, a full third, or around Rs 36,000 crore according to the Economic Times, was used for “non-plantation activities, such as cultural activities, computers, furniture, laptops, vehicles and fuel.”