Maharashtra's green cover is thinning. Planting 2 crore trees isn't enough
- According to RTI activists huge chunks of state land have been marked for deforestation
- Forest cover in Maharashtra is reducing by the day and had gone into negative
- Government claims the forest cover has been compensated for and CAG reports are printing mistakes
- Drives to plant trees are being organised across the state to \'help\' in the re-forestation process
- Why are activists sceptical about these government drives?
- What do the figures say?
On a cloudy Friday morning, the otherwise pristine and tranquil Maharashtra Nature Park (MNP) in Mumbai bustled with activity. Hundreds of school kids along with volunteers working with various NGOs gathered at the sprawling park that flows past Mithi River.
They were all there as part of a drive initiated by the Maharashtra State Government to plant two crore trees in a day across the state.
3,800 of them were planted at Mumbai's MNP amidst the mellifluous plenty of birds, butterflies, insects and other plants, drowning out the noise of vehicles running parallel to the park.
Forest Minister Sudhir Mungantiwar proudly announced in a telephonic interview that evening that the objective of planting two crore trees had been achieved by 4.46 PM.
"This was just a test case to gauge the response from the civil society," Mungantiwar said. "Our drive of making Maharashtra green will now continue with even more vigour, looking at the positive response of the electorate of Maharashtra."
While drives like the one in MNP and the response to it seems rather optimistic, the real truth maybe something else.
Documents accessed by RTI activist Jeetendra Ghadge reveal that in the last three years, more than 45,000 hectares of forestland has been approved for deforestation.
Most of the projects have been cleared by the current government at the state and the Centre and a significant number of approvals are pending, Ghadge said.
According to the documents, Pune is the worst hit with 16,987 hectares of forestland going under the deforestation knife. Amravati 10,095 and Kolhapur 6,837 come next.
Small and large included, projects cleared in Mumbai Metropolitan Region also touch the three figure mark.
In Mumbai, a large section of forest cover has been lost to the state electricity board's transmission and distribution wings, where high-tension wire networks have been set up.
Activists say, these lines cutting through forests in Thane result in big fires, obliterating nature and wildlife.
"Even a small amount of land in Mumbai, Thane and Pune costs crores," said Ghadge. "One must note that a significant chunk of this land is going to private companies."
Gadchiroli's virgin forests have been compromised as well in the name of development.
In the last 28 years, Maharashtra has lost 530 square kilometres of forest cover to the government and private projects. In other words, 103 square kilometres more than what the whole city of Mumbai occupies.
Mungantiwar, though, claimed the information acquired by Ghadge is misleading, for the state has compensated for the lost forest cover.
"According to the Union government's report, four years ago, the state's original forest cover was minus 14 sq km. It is now +453 sq km," the minister said.
Ghadge, however, said when he submitted the query regarding the increase in forest cover, instead of a specific reply, he received a 1,000-page bundle of papers.
"I received a one-page response regarding approved projects," he said. "If they had specific details, I would not have received a 1000-page bundle that gives no information whatsoever. To state the details of places with increased forestland is not difficult."
Mumbai-based environmentalist Stalin Dayanand described the initiative to plant two crore trees as 'tokenism'. "As far as these trees are concerned, who is going to look after them? It would be interesting to review them after a year," he said.
While activists concede the need to approve developmental projects, the main gripe is that the forest cover has not been compensated for. Even the CAG report released by the government, as reported by Indian Express on 31 May 2016, disputes Mungantiwar's claim.
In 2008, Maharashtra government had formulated its State Forest Policy aiming to bring 33 per cent of the state under forest cover. It talked about the importance of conservation, afforestation and the need to increase tree cover.
Eight years down the line, more than 6,800 crores have been spent on the implementation of the policy. But the truth is - forests in the state have actually shrunk by 22 sq km.
All pomp and splendour?
On Friday morning, at the serene MNP that spreads across 37 acres, with close to 300 varieties of plants and 115 species of birds, the event concluded with much fanfare. At the count of ten, a siren went off and school kids and volunteers' hands merged with the soil as Environment Minister Prakash Javdekar and Mungantiwar looked on.
The excitement of kids grew with the increase in downpour. The scent of the soil enveloped the nature park. The plantation was followed by speeches of politicians and famous water conservationist Rajendra Singh.
In the build-up to Friday, the advertisement for the drive had been playing throughout the week prior to the event, played on big screens mounted through the city at regular intervals.
The neatly written advertisement explained the dire consequences of deforestation in a poignant voice-over. It included warnings of global warming, glaciers melting, climate change and so on.
After the planting concluded, Mungantiwar took the microphone and asked kids to repeat a pledge after him. The pledge appealed to everyone to plant one tree a year and look after it. Later on, when asked about the CAG report figures, he said the report could be a "printing mistake".
"When the budget of forest department is not even 200 crores, I doubt how accurate the number 6,881 crores is," he said, adding that the Centre has promised to release 2,000 crores in the next three years for forest department. "We are very serious about the environment."
Stalin, however, said, when a government has shown no inclination to conserve and preserve the existing forest cover, one has to look at such events and tall claims with scepticism.
"If the government is hauled up in an environmental court case over deforestation regarding any project, yesterday's event would be cited as compensation for lost forest cover," he said. "It is nothing but an excuse to make further inroads into the state's forestland."
Edited by Jhinuk Sen