Congress to move amendments to Compensatory Afforestation Bill
The Congress is moving amendments to a key environmental legislation that was passed by the Lok Sabha on 3 May. Former environment minister Jairam Ramesh has proposed changes to the Compensatory Afforestation Fund Bill, 2015, and submitted them to the Rajya Sabha on 10 May.
Why is this bill needed?
When industrial projects need to take over forests, they are legally bound to pay a sum of money equal to the monetary value of the forest plus the cost of planting at least the same number of trees as compensation. This is as per the Forest (Conservation) Act, 1980.
Already, Rs 42,000 crore has been accumulated in such payments, but the money have remained unspent in the absence of a legal mechanism for the same. The bill creates this mechanism.
The amendments being moved ensure that tribals and other forest residents have a say in such afforestation projects.
It adds two clauses to the bill which make it compulsory that:
- Informed consent is taken of all gram sabhas (with 50% quorum) lying within the boundaries of, or up to 5 km from, an afforestation project. The consent should include a certificate that the Forest Rights Act, 2006 has been implemented.
- If an afforestation project is being implemented in an area where forest rights under the 2015 law have been or can be claimed, the gram sabhas' consent is needed for the plan of the afforestation activity, including the type of trees that will be planted.
Jairam confirmed that he has submitted the amendments. "I have submitted [the amendments]. It will be circulated when the bill is taken up," the former minister told Catch.
Ramesh added that he has approached the CPI(M), BJD, Telangana Rashtra Samiti, Trinamool Congress and JD(U) for support on the bill. These parties together have 106 members in the 245-member House.
If Rajya Sabha approves the amendments, they will be returned to the Lok Sabha for deliberation.
"This bill states that the forest department can simply plant huge numbers of trees in natural landscapes without even checking if people have rights over them, leave alone consulting them about where they should be planted, what species should be planted, and what impact this will have on their lives," says a statement by the Campaign for Survival and Dignity, an organisation working on forest rights.
"This amendment is very important because it will add one small check to ensure that people have at least one forum where they can defend their rights."
Interestingly, such a bill was first introduced in the Lok Sabha by the first UPA government in 2008. The bill did not have any provisions for the rights of forest dwellers. It lapsed after the then parliamentary standing committee on environment recommended its withdrawal.
The committee, chaired by V Maitreyan of the AIADMK, had recommended that amendments could instead be brought into the Forest (Conservation) Act, 1980, which makes compensatory afforestation compulsory in the first place. (Read PRS' summary of the recommendations here.)
Pointing out that gram sabhas had been ignored in the bill, the committee had recommending that they should be the "key body" involved in decisions related to forest diversion and afforestation.