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Linear projects sans clearances its larger implications on forest & environment

By Jajo Themson
Legislation, interpretation and application of Forest & Environmental laws are commonly characterized by contradiction, contestation and tussles in different mega developmental projects in India. While there were various instances of violation of existing national green laws and disparity in actual applications in different states on execution of big projects causing lot of controversies, the Union Ministry of Environment & Forest Climate Change ((MoEFCC) has been making many modifications, addition or change of policies and guidelines. Some paras of the section 2 of the Forest Conservation Act, (FCA) 1980 has been modified in 2013 whereby issuing new guideline for exemption of Forest & Environment Clearances for those linear projects such as Road, Railway and Transmission Lines.  The said section of the FCA, 1980 governs any economic activities that invariably involve diversion of forest for non-forest purposes which mandated Forest & Environmental Clearances. Moreover, the same was substantiated by enactment of the Forest Rights (Recognition of Scheduled Tribe & Other Traditional Forest Dwellers Right) Act, (FRA) 2006 in the clearance process.

The FCA, 1980 and FRA, 2006 operate through reciprocal rules and guidelines of the MoEFCCSection 2 of the FCA, 1980 made necessary clearances a mandatory where participation of communities who own land and forest resources are to involve in the process. However, the same was superseded by the introduction of Single Window Clearance Systemavoiding human interface in the process of Clearances which was conceived under Orissa Industries (Facilitation) Act, 2004. The Union MoEFCC, once again modified the para 4.4 & 2.2(iii) of the section 2 of the FCA, 1980 on 7th January, 2013provided that the FCA, 1980 & FRA, 2006 exempted Environment & Forest Clearances for the linear projects.

Guidelines under modification of paras 4.4 of FCA, 1980, section 2
As per the guidelines issued by the MoEFCC dated 7th January 2013, modifying para 4.4 of section 2 of the FCA, 1980, “If any linear projects that involves such diversion of forest for non-forest purposes and Forest & Environment Clearances of the same is declined, an alternate alignment has to be selected in the non-forested portions”. Here, the User Agency has no rights but the same is to be considered the Clearance being accorded by the Central Govt. Further it states that, “If it happens that only some portions of the road involve forest diversion, the very portion is to be left at the existing conditions and such is considered the mandatory clearance being conceded”. However, it is also provided that, the said condition doesn’t apply for roads falling under Protected Area and eco-sensitive zones around the protected area.

Relative implications of the new guidelines
It is remarkable that there are only fewer portions in the hilly regions of Manipur where there are no forests areas wherever the alignments of roads and railways are being sketched. Moreover, the guideline providing portions of road area that involves forest diversion shall be left at its existing condition as clearance being accorded, happens to be quite confusing.  The current guidelines in discussion dated 7th January 2013, modification of the para 4.4 and 2.2 (iii) is envisaged to be quite irrational and controversial in the context of Manipur. It is undeniable fact that destruction of natural land-scape, massive devastation of forest, contamination of river water, devastation of farm land, paddy field etc. cannot be overlooked.

It is clearly visible that the Quantum of forest and environmental deterioration caused in the construction of Trans-Asian Railway in Tamenglong district and ADB Road projects at Taudaijang in Tamenglong, construction of 47 km Road from Thoubal to kasom Khullen, which are some of the immediate examples that were executed without mandatory clearances. It is noteworthy that under the Guidelines of this modification of the FCA, 1980 by the MoEFCC, Stage –I in- Principle clearance of 111 km long Jiribam-Tupul-Imphal Railway line involving forest diversion @1005.055 hectares was accorded by the North Eastern Railways on 11 November 2014, subject to fulfillment of XXIII points. Here, mere conditions as formality were furnished like it was done in all other projects which involved diversion of forest.

Another instances of such is exemption of Forest Clearance by denial of FRA, 2006 in the ADB sponsored Road Projects in Chandel district.  The step was taken under 2013 Guidelines of the MoEFCC for Linear projects and laid basis on describing the Maram Nagas as the only Primitive Tribal Group (PTG) in the state of Manipur, therefore Consent of the Gram Sabhas of tribal villages in Chandel district are not required and thus, the FRA, 2006 was out rightly exempted.  It is remarkable that the statement of the General Manager, NHIDCL, 06/08/2016 to DC, Chandel district regarding exemption of FRA, contradicted the already existing contradictory orders as 5th Scheduled is there in Manipur in the case of Mapithel forest before the National Green Tribunal in 2013 and “There is no scheduled Areas in Manipur state but has tribal Sub-Plain or Hill Areas” as maintained in the Judgment of the Supreme Court of India dated 5/12/2008 in the case of ”Bombay Natural History Society & Others V/S Union of India & others in the case of FRA, 2006.

In the light of the abovementioned discussion it is clear to maintain that, the new Guidelines of the MoEFCC under modification of para 4.4 & 2.2(iii) of the Forest Conservation Act, 1980, bore a contradictory version, the implication of which will only aggrandize our fragile environment today. The same guidelines give ample rooms and opportunities for free hand easy actions of the project developers with minimum effort. It is also worth mentioning that the new guidelines bear an underlying bigger potential threat to our nature. It would be a plunder mistake on our part to side-view the devastative nature of the Linear projects like mentioned above.

Finally, it will be great on the part of the citizens of India well aware of the pitfalls associated with the newly introduced guidelines of the MoEFCC, 2013 which is detrimental and severely inflicting our land, forest, river and natural resources without reasonable clearances vis-à-vis proper impacts assessment and mitigating measures therewith. The same is enhancing the fast trend of deteriorating ecological balances and global environmental integrity.

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