ISSN (Print) - 0012-9976 | ISSN (Online) - 2349-8846

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Environmental Word Games

When a minister redefines forest diversion as reforestation, we should be worried.

Union Environment Minister Prakash Javadekar has come up with a novel way to be “positive.” In a letter sent out from his office on 16 July, he recommends that in future in all communication, the word “clearance” should be replaced by “approval with adequate environmental safeguards” and the word “diversion” should be replaced by “reforestation.” Thus through verbal jugglery, the minister has devised a way to deal with the bothersome business of granting clearances for forest areas and the mandatory requirement of compensatory afforestation. One could laugh this off if it was not so serious. For what the minister is basically suggesting is that there should be no problem diverting forestland for other purposes because, after all, you are creating forests by planting trees on some other land. So why call it “diversion” of forestland when in fact you are “reforesting” alternative land? The reality, of course, is somewhat different. India’s forest cover is barely 22% of land area, nowhere near the 33% recommended. In all likelihood, it is much less as land marked as forests is often devoid of tree cover or has been encroached upon.

We have good reason to worry about the quantity of land covered by forests. This is where Javadekar’s facetious comments about being “positive” give reason for alarm. In the face of several environmental cases that pointed to the diversion of forests for infrastructure and other projects, in 2002 the reme Court constituted a special “Forest Bench” that directed the setting up of a Compensatory Afforestation Fund Management and Planning Authority (CAMPA). Although an attempt to formalise this through a law failed, funds had been raised for compensatory afforestation that were passed on to different states. According to a 2013 report of the Comptroller and Auditor General (CAG), between 2006 and 2012 the Ministry of Environment and Forests (MoEF) was posed to have acquired 1,03,382 hectares (ha) of non-forestland for compensatory afforestation. It only managed to get 28,086 ha, and, of this, compensatory afforestation was carried out on only 7,280 ha, that is, on only 7% of the land it acquired. In any case, not all compensatory afforestation is carried out on non-forestland. Some of it is on degraded forestland. In other words, you have a case of double entry: land that is “forest” on paper is once again deemed “forest” under compensatory afforestation. The government claims there is more forestland when in reality it is disappearing under our feet.

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