PM Modi says private plantations can replace forests; his own experts disagree

Why Modi’s sales pitch at the G20 summit for a ‘green credit scheme’ is bad news for India’s natural forests and the communities that depend on them

Community-governed forest in Mayurbhanj district of Odisha, October 2022 (photo: Mridula Chari/ Article 14)
Community-governed forest in Mayurbhanj district of Odisha, October 2022 (photo: Mridula Chari/ Article 14)

Aditi Vajpeyi & Mridula Chari

Prime Minister Narendra Modi is pushing the world to adopt a vaguely worded environmental programme that he first proposed as chief minister of Gujarat 15 years ago — which has been conceptually opposed three times by one of his own ministries and by a Supreme Court committee.

The idea? That, as part of India’s climate change commitments, private plantations run by companies could replace swathes of India’s forests. The forests are currently governed by either local communities or the government, and the communities that depend on these forests have legal rights over them too.

On 9 September 2023, while speaking at the G20 summit, Modi proposed that the group create a competitive market system that would reward ‘environment-positive’ actions in the form of ‘green credits’. On 27 August at the Business 20 India 2023 summit in New Delhi, he had announced ‘a framework for green credits businesses’.

Many countries and businesses use carbon credits to offset emissions through tree plantations or renewable energy. Companies can trade carbon credits on exchanges, allowing them to emit a certain quantity of greenhouse gases. Like carbon credits, green credits could be bought or sold on a domestic trading platform, which does not yet exist; but they cover a wider range of

eight sectors, including tree plantation, water conservation, mangrove restoration and sustainable agriculture. With the notification of the draft green credit programme on 26 June 2023, India adopted two credit mechanisms, carbon and green. The Carbon Credit Trading Scheme was notified on 28 June, two days after the notification of the Draft Green Credit Programme Implementation Rules, which say a green credit would be given by the ministry of environment based on the nature and scope of an ‘environment-positive’ action. The draft rules do not clarify how such an action is meant to cancel out harm to the environment.

A Green India Mission plantation in Madhya Pradesh’s Panna district, June 2023 (photo: Aditi Vajpeyi/ Article 14)
A Green India Mission plantation in Madhya Pradesh’s Panna district, June 2023 (photo: Aditi Vajpeyi/ Article 14)
Aditi Vajpeyi/ Article 14

Carbon credits have a certification system to prove reduction in carbon emissions, though vulnerable to fraud and exploitation of indigenous rights and ecosystems. With green credits, however, the meaning or value of a credit itself is not yet clear.

“It is conceivable that companies may make misleading claims in the absence of technology or methods to verify such credits,” said Soumitra Ghosh, an activist with the All India Forum of Forest Movements. In 2023, Ghosh and a group of independent lawyers, researchers and others submitted a critique of the green credit programme to the Union environment ministry, recommending ‘immediate withdrawal of the scheme’. “

It does not claim to reduce emissions,” said Souparno Lahiri, senior climate and biodiversity advisor at the Global Forest Coalition. “(Then) what is it for?” Yet during the G20 summit, Modi said “green credit focuses on planet-positive actions”, urging businesses to “associate with green credits and make it a globaln movement”.

India’s policy changes around forest laws and policies are meant to support climate mitigation, since India updated its Nationally Determined Contributions (NDC) commitments to the United Nations Framework on Climate Change (UNFCC) in 2021. No other country has a green credit programme like India’s.

Behind the 'credits', a commitment

Countries that signed the Paris Agreement in 2016, a legally binding international treaty, committed to climate action to cut carbon emissions through their NDCs. One of India’s updated commitments is to absorb 2.5 to 3 billion tonnes more of carbon dioxide than it currently does by planting more trees and forests by 2030.

The question is how India plans to achieve this.

One way is through government schemes for afforestation, such as the Compensatory Afforestation Fund, managed by forest departments and run on funds received from user agencies. The Union government is also pushing for afforestation by private parties, an approach with a long, troubled history that is closely intertwined with the green credit programme. From forest rights activists to a Supreme Court committee and the tribal affairs ministry, there has been consistent opposition to the concept.

Yet the green credit programme is part of a move to restructure the entire architecture of forestry and forest rights in India by diluting laws that protect forests from being cut down and introducing policies that encourage private players to manage tree plantations.

Tushar Dash, an independent researcher who works on forest rights and governance, alleged the green credit programme was a cover to “institutionalise a complicated legal and political architecture for privatisation of forests and facilitating the entry of market institutions in afforestation programmes”.

“What the green credit programme does materially is not about whether it improves ecological outcomes on the ground,” said Vijay Kolinjivadi, a postdoctoral fellow at the Institute of Development Policy at the University of Antwerp. “It is markets and financialisation that are driving the green credit programme, not ecological devastation and ecological breakdown on a scale unseen in human history.”

Consultation time cut down

The ministry of environment, forests and climate notified the Draft Green Credit Programme Implementation Rules on 26 June, with a standard 60-day consultation period for receiving comments and responses from the public. On 18 July, the ministry issued another notification, cutting short the deadline for public consultations to 31 July ‘in order to give effect to the final notification for promotion of voluntary environmental actions’. The ministry said the draft notification had been released ‘for the information of the public likely to be affected’.

The ministry also said ‘several consultations had already been undertaken with the concerned stakeholders’. Two days later, on 20 July, the Indian Council for Forestry Research and Education (ICFRE), an autonomous council under the ministry for environment, named as the administrator of the green credit programme, published a vacancy advertisement for ‘senior consultants’ to draft guidelines, methodologies and standards. The call for consultants focused on two sectors: tree plantation and water conservation. 

“Instead of dispensing with the consultation process altogether, it was carried through a truncated exercise,” said Kanchi Kohli, an environmental law and policy researcher, suggesting that “the call for comments was never meant to influence the outcome”.

On 24 July, while responding to a question in the Lok Sabha, MoS for environment Ashwini Choubey said a ‘final notification’ would be issued after considering stakeholder comments. Responding to another question on 7 August, Choubey said that the ministry had allocated Rs 1 crore in principle to the ICFRE.

Which stakeholders?

“How can the government claim that stakeholder consultation has been done when no gram sabha or community member in our state is even aware of this scheme?” asked Gopi Maji, Odisha state convenor of the Campaign for Survival and Dignity, a national advocacy forum for tribes and forest dwellers. “The government only cares to consult with the big corporations and has made a mockery of the public consultation process. We are already witnessing this in the case of the Forest Conservation Amendment Bill.”

In 2022, the environment ministry introduced a Forest Conservation Bill that proposed amendments to the Forest Conservation Act of 1980, limiting its applicability to certain types of forest land. On 4 August 2023, the Forest Conservation (Amendment) Act (FCA) was notified by Parliament without any discussion.

It allows ‘linear projects’ — highways, railways, canals and dams — mining leases and creation of land banks without forest department approval. These exemptions violate the Forest Rights Act of 2006 (FRA), which recognises the rights of communities that depend on forests for their livelihood and requires consent of gram sabhas before such diversion.

A troubled history 

The history of green credits began not in New Delhi but in Gujarat, in 2008, when Modi was the chief minister. In December 2008, Modi announced that “Gujarat has moved forward by adopting the strategy of green credit, which is a step ahead beyond the carbon credit”. He said the proposal had already been approved by the United Progressive Alliance (UPA) government.

When Gujarat set up a department for climate change in February 2009, it announced a ‘Green Credit Movement’. It proposed the forest department would identify possible private or degraded lands for afforestation. Private applicants could plant trees on these lands. In 2011, Modi mentioned in an illustrated book on climate change his discomfort with carbon credits, because they ‘reflect wrongdoer’s penance in monetary terms’.

He also spoke about green credits. The concept in Modi’s book was reiterated in a 2014 draft report on the Gujarat State Action Plan on Climate Change, which said green credits would account not only for the area of afforestation but the value of the plantation, biomass yield and captured carbon. “Since 2014, project developers have been asking the government to ensure easy ways of getting land for compensatory afforestation,” said Dash.

A critical requirement for a developer that wants to use forest land is approval from the environment ministry. First the forest department has to identify and allocate land to the project. Developers also have to pay a certain amount for compensatory afforestation. Only then will they receive a clearance.

“If companies can be given the option to raise their own plantations, that is a way of getting faster clearances,” Dash said. With the green credit scheme, useragencies could purchase credits from other private players who had already planted trees on private land—so private plantations could end up replacing forests.

Green credits reach Delhi

Once Modi became prime minister, the Union government began its push for green credits. In 2014, the then environment minister Prakash Javadekar told the Rajya Sabha that the Supreme Court would need to approve the scheme. The government of Gujarat made a presentation on green credits at a meeting chaired by the secretary of the environment ministry in December 2014.

Officials decided to constitute a committee under the ADG of forest conservation to prepare a similar scheme for the Union government. The committee submitted a concept note for green credits to the environment ministry in August 2015.

The ministry approved afforestation guidelines that allowed companies and people to plant trees on private ‘degraded land’. In 2016, the draft national forest policy proposed ‘production forestry’ to facilitate a ‘forest–industry interface’.

It was withdrawn after widespread opposition, including from the ministry of tribal affairs, in 2018. Despite pushback, however, the idea resurfaced again in 2019. On 6 July, as part of the Indo–German Development Cooperation Project, the environment ministry issued a call for proposals on ‘Operationalising Green Credit Programmes in India’. In 2019, amendments to the Indian Forest Act of 1927 proposed the involvement of the private sector to create ‘production forests’.

The forest advisory committee, which scrutinises requests to divert forest lands to non-forest uses, in December 2019 said that private plantations in non-forest areas would help India meet its sustainable development goals and NDCs. It added that such plantations would be accepted as compensatory afforestation.

Green credits @2023

In 2020, the Indian Express quoted Jaipal Singh, a senior Gujarat forest official, as saying, “The Central Empowered Committee of the Supreme Court looked at the scheme and found the proposal untenable.” In a June 2021 RTI response, the environment ministry said it had ‘decided not to take any further action on the Green Credit Scheme’. Yet background work to push green credits became evident as India took over the G20 presidency in December 2022.

In January this year, the environment ministry notified guidelines for a programme similar to the scheme envisioned by Gujarat, calling it ‘accredited compensatory afforestation’ (ACA). It allows private companies and persons to plant trees on any land, as compensation for diversion of forest land. The guidelines said that compensatory afforestation by the state faced problems of delayed funds and unavailability of forest land.

Aditi Vajpeyi is an independent researcher and writer based in Himachal Pradesh. Mridula Chari is an independent journalist based in Mumbai. Abridged, with permission, from the original article published by Article 14 here

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