National Monetisation Pipeline and Forest Regulation
THE ministry of environment, forests and climate change, government of India has recently circulated a proposed ‘Public Consultation Paper on Proposed Amendments to the Forest Conservation Act, 1980’ (hereafter FCA) on October 2, 2021. Though the stated aim of the proposed amendments is to reform forest regulation in line with the “dynamic changes in the ecological and economic needs of our country’ a closer reading of the vaguely drafted proposal betrayed the real intention behind the proposed changes, which seems to be the need to bring forest and environmental regulation clearances in line with the National Monetisation Pipeline, 2022-2025 (hereafter NMP) involving leasing out of public assets, including those within forested areas and covered under present FCA. While the plan has been widely opposed from several quarters, and there is a move towards building up resistance, the interface between the NMP and the FCA has largely been overlooked and needs the attention of all sections of the democratic movement.
The ministry has proposed key changes in the FCA, in order to give the Right of Way (RoW) to developers of big infrastructure projects, railways, roads, highways etc (point 2), projects on international borders (point 3) and projects using high technology (point 7). The paper notes that, in many cases, such projects are located in ‘protected forests’ where landholding agencies have to take prior approval and pay compensatory levies (for example Net Present Value) and compensatory afforestation dues for its redevelopment. Under the proposed changes, the ministry is considering the exemption of these lands from the purview of the FCA. Such an exemption will allow the associated ministries to lease out or sell their unutilised lands and infrastructure and will facilitate the right of private developers to redevelop assets without any hinderance. Private developers will neither have to conform to any environmental norms, nor be liable to follow the mandatory provisions of the Forest Rights Act, since the proposals will facilitate the de-notification of forest lands. Many of these have already been exempted from prior clearance under the Environmental Impact Assessment Regulations, 2020. This means that no social or ecological impact will be done for these projects.
It must be emphasised, that such an exercise is not confined to small patches of land, rather it will cover large masses of lands which have been identified in the NMP as prime targets of disinvestment. For example, the NMP identifies assets of eight ministries worth Rs 2.5 crore to be monetised in 2022. Of these about 20 per cent belong to the ministry of roads and transport, and 36 per cent to the ministry of railways. As per one report, in 2019, the ministry of railways already received exemptions for projects in multiple national parks and sanctuaries, and also pressurised the ministry to consider a blanket exemption. At present railways has estimated to have access to unutilised land of 40,000 hectares and the ministry for roads and transport (highway development) has identified 7 lakh hectares that can be a part of the NMP.
The proposal flags the issue of exemption to leased non-government lands with forest cover (point 8), which were to apply for forest clearances under section 2 (iii) of the FCA and proposes that this provision should be deleted. It states that section 2 (ii), i.e., applying the provisions of FCA to diversion of government lands for non-forest purposes, may also apply to leased lands. This effectively implies that small mines leasing non-government forest lands from private entities will be exempt from any clearances. It should be noted that the Environmental Impact Assessment, 2020 has already provided exemptions to small mines and expansion of existing mines within defined limits. This is another step towards the comprehensive deregulation of the mining sector and is in line with the NAMP which hopes to raise about Rs 28,747 cr through the monetisation of mining assets between 2022-2025. This means that the proposed change in FCA is being offered as an incentive to private players in the process of deepening disinvestment of public sector mining companies which had acquired lands and assets at throw away prices in the name of ‘public good’. It is clear that the government is working under the intense pressure of large multinational mining companies who have constantly pushed, often successfully, for exemptions. Such a move will also intensify the social tensions and conflicts within mineral rich forested regions.
REVERSING THE GAINS OF FRA
A third important aspect to consider is the way in which such proposals will impact on the implementation of the Forest Rights Act. It is well known that the ministry of environment, forests and climate change has been trying to dilute the Forest Rights Act, and it has also been partially successful in doing this. Further, continuous threats of eviction by forest departments are designed to facilitate the lease of forest lands to private players for projects. It is now becoming clear that these projects will be tied up with the NMP, through authorisation of change in land use by easing environmental and forest regulations. The current proposals (points 1 and 10) take a step forward in this direction and its proposals indicate that the government is now ready to facilitate land use change without invoking the Act. More importantly the proposal for need to exempt plantations on private/non-forest lands without conforming to FCA or FRA (point 3 (iii)) will be a serious setback to the implementation of the FRA.
It has often been stated by the policy makers that environment and forest clearance regulations pose a serious threat to attracting international and big corporate domestic investors. The recent NMP and National Investment Plan has set targets to introduce corporate investments in most of the infrastructural sectors. Any regulation of land use and the protection of rights of peasantry and agricultural workers will be a constraint to the achievement of the targets of the NMP. The timing of the ‘Proposed Amendment to the FCA, 1980’ is no coincidence, rather the implementation of the proposal seems to be one of the preconditions for the implementation of the NMP. In contrast, these amendments can be devastating, both from the point of view of livelihood and ecological security of the adivasi peasantry and workers who depend on the forests for their survival. Therefore, the social basis of the fight to save public assets should be widened, through the integration of issues associated with land alienation and land use planning. The ministry’s proposed amendments highlight an urgent need for this.