Urgent! Calling all citizens to endorse this campaign to prevent over ₹ 35,000 Crores being wasted on meaningless tree planting projects. Let’s demand a better Compensatory Afforestation Bill! Act Now by signing this petition!

To

The Honourable Chairman,
Department Related Standing Committee
Science & Technology, Environment & Forests
Rajya Sabha Secretariat
Room No. 142, First Floor, Parliament House Annexe
New Delhi – 110 001

Sub: The Compensatory Afforestation Bill 2015 must be revised and recast.

Dear Sir,

At the outset, we seek condonation of delay, if any, in submitting our views. However we hope you will take them into consideration during the deliberations of the committee to examine the CAF Bill 2015.

We, the undersigned, strongly believe that the CAF Bill 2015 in its present form will not add to the ecological security of this country, but is far more likely to (a) result in ecological disaster, and (b) foster massive corruption in the forestry sector. Expert views on this subject have recently appeared in The Hindu (Sowing the Seeds of a Disaster, July 29, 2015) and other media articles.

Here we present some well-founded reasons why the Bill must be recast on the basis of sound science and commonsense. We also show how the Compensatory Afforestation Management Planning Authority (CAMPA) corpus can be utilized to genuinely benefit the country.

  1. Flawed premise: The Bill is fundamentally flawed in that it assumes that the loss of forests or other natural habitats as a result of development projects can be ‘compensated’ by simply planting trees elsewhere. The truth is, forests and other natural habitats are extremely complex ecosystems that have evolved to a state of ecological equilibrium over millions of years, with their full complement of pollinators, seed dispersers, predators and prey. These natural habitats are the repositories of India’s extraordinarily rich biodiversity, which is already under tremendous stress. The ‘compensatory afforestation’ that this country has witnessed so far predominantly consists of raising artificial plantations of non-native species of trees, which have zero biodiversity value. Even where plantations of mixed species of native trees have been raised, they do not come anywhere close to replicating the natural habitat that was destroyed.
  2. Tree planting is no panacea: It is also meaningless to plant trees in lieu of diverted natural habitats such as wetlands or grasslands, which have their own distinct ecological value. Sometimes, over-zealous tree planting in the wrong place can badly affect a natural ecosystem. Here is just one example of how the compensatory afforestation approach often ends up not just being a ‘greenwash’, but an ecological disaster as well. From 1980 to 2005, the Kudremukh Iron Ore Company Limited (KIOCL) strip-mined hill slopes clothed in virgin rainforests in the heart of Karnataka’s Kudremukh National Park. Besides this horrendous damage to the fragile ecosystem, over 150 million tonnes of tailings – the waste mud left over after extraction of low grade ore – were dumped into a pristine, 100 metre deep, forested valley. To ‘compensate’ for this loss of natural habitats, KIOCL went on a massive compensatory afforestation spree, planting millions of trees. The problem with this was twofold: the trees were non-native species; and they were planted on adjoining areas of natural grassland, which are an extremely important component of the Bhadra River’s watershed. Thus, apart from the forested hill slopes and the valley that were destroyed by mining activities, a third natural habitat, in the form of ecologically important grasslands, was destroyed through mindless tree planting. The CAF Bill 2015, if approved in its current form, would end up repeating such colossal mistakes all over the country.
  3. Nothing but a fig leaf: ‘Compensatory afforestation’ is nothing but a fig leaf to cover up the diversion of natural habitats in the name of development. It is a sad irony that the money spent and the plantations raised are then touted as ‘achievements’ towards a ‘Green India’.
  4. Abysmal record: Afforestation in general has had an abysmal record in India. Massive amounts of money have been spent with little to show on the ground. In Maharashtra, a recent official evaluation of ten-year old plantations in all 11 Forest Circles has shown that 74% of plantations have failed. 13% were shown to be partially successful and only 13% were deemed successful. Under the 12th Plan, an allocation of 2500 crore rupees was made for the National Afforestation Programme, but with little to show for it. The Parliamentary Standing Committee on Science & Technology and Environment & Forests in 2015 has recorded that despite massive budgetary provisions, 40% of forests in the country are still degraded. ‘Compensatory Afforestation’ has had an even more dismal record, with numerous instances of money allotted for afforestation being misused for purchasing vehicles and installing air conditioners. According to some studies, Goa used 69% of its compensatory afforestation allocation on buildings, vehicles and computers. Similarly, Andhra Pradesh wanted to spend 43% on construction activities, Sikkim 53%, Himachal Pradesh 53% and Tamil Nadu 67%.
  5. The CAMPA corpus must not be squandered: It would be an immense tragedy if the huge corpus of over 35,000 crore rupees that has accrued with CAMPA is frittered away on meaningless and corruption-ridden tree planting schemes. Even setting aside the flawed premise that ‘compensatory afforestation’ is based upon, analysis shows that non-forestland is virtually unavailable for afforestation. In it’s report of September 2013 on compensatory afforestation, the CAG has put forth some startling facts. It computes that between 2006 and 2012, state environment departments were to get 103,382 hectares of non-forestland for afforestation from revenue departments. Instead, all they got was 28,086 hectares, out of which afforestation was carried out on “an abysmal 7,280.84 hectare constituting seven percent of the land which ought to have been received”.
  6. Other funds available for afforestation: Currently, Japan International Co-operation Agency (JICA) has committed 15,000 crore rupees for 22 forestry projects in 13 States. Other multi-lateral agencies have committed huge sums of money for afforestation in the past and will doubtless do so in the future. This obviates the need for CAMPA funds to be used for the same endeavour.
  7. How CAMPA funds can be used to truly benefit the nation: The massive corpus accrued under CAMPA is akin to ‘blood money’ collected from the destruction of forests and other natural habitats. Squandering this fund would only add insult to injury. Instead of spending this sovereign fund on highly leakage-prone tree planting projects, we suggest that it would be better spent in the following way:
    • Defragmentation of large forest blocks: When ill-planned development projects are thrust into the heart of PAs, the result is fragmentation, ie., the breaking up of large forest blocks into smaller and more vulnerable patches. Peer reviewed scientific research has clearly established that fragmentation is one of the most serious threats to long-term biodiversity conservation, causing several devastating impacts; among other things, it disrupts landscape connectivity, affecting dispersal of animals, and creates new edges that expose forests to exploitation and severe degradation. The Bill must be modified to allow a major percentage of CAMPA funds to be utilized for defragmenting and consolidation of the remaining large blocks of natural old-growth forests. Among other measures, this could involve (i) Strategic land acquisitions (ii) Extinguishment of old leased lands in thickly forested areas (iii) Voluntary resettlement of people from PAs (iv) Creation of wildlife corridors, and (v) Facilitating natural regeneration of degraded forests. CAMPA, being our sovereign fund, is the only one available for such ecologically vital activities, which are not allowed by international agencies funding afforestation projects in India.
    • Mitigation of the impacts of development projects in and around PAs: all development projects within and in the vicinity of PAs will inevitably result in a multitude of negative impacts. Some, if not all, of these impacts could be mitigated to an extent through scientifically designed measures. For instance, where a highway running through a PA is to be widened from a two lane one to a four lane or six lane one, it will become impossible for animals to cross the road safely from one side of the forest to the other. Often, the NHAI claims lack of funds for effective mitigation. CAMPA funds would be invaluable in such cases for re-establishing habitat connectivity through the careful deployment of traffic overpasses and wildlife underpasses at critical animal crossing points.
    • Assisting natural regeneration of degraded forests on the basis of good science: the other important activity that needs to be funded through CAMPA is natural restoration or regeneration of degraded forests. The approach here must be to first identify degraded forest areas with existent rootstock, and invest only on appropriate protection measures such as trenching, fencing and fire prevention. The degraded forests will then recover through a natural process at a very nominal cost to the exchequer. Funding for artificial plantations should only be considered in extremely degraded areas with no existing rootstock.

We are at a critical moment in India’s fight to achieve ecological security while ensuring economic and social progress. If the CAF Bill 2015 is recast on the basis of sound science, it can create the foundation for a far-sighted, and genuinely beneficial strategy to protect India’s forests. If not, it may result in the squandering of thirty five thousand crore rupees on corruption-ridden ‘afforestation’ projects involving digging pits, buying polythene bags for raising saplings, and planting trees that can never become forests.

We humbly request the honourable Rajya Sabha Standing Committee to take these matters into careful consideration while providing recommendations on the CAF Bill 2015.

Sincerely,

(This petition was circulated and endorsed online by the undersigned)


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