A government too keen to 'monetise' cantonment and forest lands

Two moves in two consecutive months designed to seamlessly allow government to appropriate lakhs of hectares of forest and prime land

Activists protest against felling of trees to make way for the Metro car shed in Mumbai’s Aarey forest, October 2019  (Photo: Getty Images)
Activists protest against felling of trees to make way for the Metro car shed in Mumbai’s Aarey forest, October 2019 (Photo: Getty Images)

Rashme Sehgal

In April, the central government issued a notification to disband all 62 cantonments, which would free 1.61 lakh acres of land, worth hundreds of crores of rupees. One month before that, on 29 March 2023, the government had introduced the Forest (Conservation) Amendment Bill, 2023, that would de-reserve lakhs of hectares of green areas that are deemed forests.

This bill was introduced at a time when the UK-based Utility Bidder highlighted that India had lost 6 lakh hectares of forest to rampant deforestation, with the surge of losses peaking between 2015 and 2020.

Not only environmentalists, but even retired army officers have opposed the de-reservation of the cantonments, warning that these are the last green areas left in our cities. Not only do they absorb carbon and other pollutants, but also provide respite from the over-burdened infrastructure in our poorly planned cities.

Lt Gen Vijay Oberoi (retd), former vice chief of army staff points out, “The real reason for the de-reservation is that the premium on defence lands has become extremely high on account of the infrastructure developed there. Taking them out of the army’s control will enable easy disposal in the future, especially when the land mafia is waiting for a bonzana of this nature.”

Major Gen Rajendra Prakash (retd) agrees: “Politicians have always had their eyes on defence lands, and this disbanding will allow them a free hand to take over what they want to [sell] to developers and the land mafia.”

The Forest Conservation (Amendment) Act, 2023, which is likely to be passed in the monsoon session of Parliament, states that the FCA will only apply to those lands that were recorded as forests on or after 25 October 1980. This means the large swathe of the Aravallis, forests in the Terai and rainforests of the north-east and the Western Ghats will no longer be considered as ‘forest’. These can be then sold or axed. The implication of this is clear enough. Lakhs of hectares of forests-not-recorded-as-forests can be sold to the highest bidder, because their sale will no longer be subjected to any regulatory oversight.

In 75 years after Independence, the ministry of environment and forests has come up with no legal definition of ‘forest’. The Supreme Court had tried to cover this shortcoming in their T.N. Godavarman Thirumulpad vs Union of India ruling (1996) that provided legal protection to those forests which were not notified. Debadityo Sinha, senior resident fellow with the Vidhi Centre for Legal Policy, warns that “the bill systematically dilutes the provisions of ‘deemed forest’ in the T.N. Godavarman Supreme Court judgement, where any land recorded as ‘forest’ in government records needed ‘forest clearance’ from the ministry of environment and forests”. The new amendment will give this safeguard short shrift.

Sinha adds, “This is a major exemption and threatens a significant area of forest land, especially [as] the majority of such recorded forest lands were originally transferred to the forest department during the abolishment of the zamindari system during the 1950s.”

Sheltering under the garb of national security, this amendment will free vast swathes of forest land that will be

unquestioningly handed over to the civilian authorities. Land along rail tracks, along the international border, along the Line of Control and the Line of Actual Control, defence projects, paramilitary camps and areas demarcated for the construction of security-related infrastructure are some of the areas that will be taken over.

Little attention seems to have been devoted in the bill to the impact this will have on the local environment or to tribal communities residing in these areas. In the north-east, to cite an example of such peremptory takeover, the amendment

will allow the government to seize hundreds of kilometres of forest land for strategic purposes. But this area, experts warn, will encompass practically the entire north-east Himalayan area.

Other exemptions to the usual rules of forest land takeover will include ‘silviculture’ farms, establishment of zoos, safaris and other ecotourism facilities, and ‘any other purposes’. What does this phrase ‘any other purposes’ allude to, though? Obviously, the terminology has deliberately been kept so general and so vague as to allow for the wholesale exploitation of our forests.

It must also be pointed out that silviculture plantations pose a significant threat to natural forests. They promote commercialisation of reserve forests, which is bound to disturb wildlife irrevocably. It is a common misconception that wildlife occurs only inside protected areas, which is not really the case as animals move from one habitation to another. If the bill is passed, its effect on wildlife will be catastrophic.

Environmentalist Prerna Bindra, a former member of the National Board for Wildlife (NBWL), expresses apprehension at the idea of safari parks such as the one proposed in the Aravallis. Bindra believes this will only serve to destroy the native vegetation and wildlife habitats. “In the same way, creating tourism infrastructure has been seen to fragment wild habitats and corridors [in] Corbett and the Niligiri Biosphere Reserve,” Bindra points out.

Of course, it is not as though land was not being diverted under the Forest Conservation Act 1980. Environment minister Ashwini Kumar Choubey informed the Rajya Sabha on 6 April 2023 that during the last five years, 88,903 hectares (ha) of forest land had been diverted for non-forestry purposes—which is an area larger than the size of Mumbai and Kolkata put together. The highest amount of diversion was 18,424 ha for the purposes of road construction. This was followed by 18,847 ha for mining, 13,344 ha for irrigation projects, 9,469 ha for transmission lines and 7,630 ha for defence projects.

The whole objective of this amendment does not seem to be merely to legitimise the diversion of forests and allow for more infrastructure projects—which have already been taking place at an alarming pace, even when it has been at the cost of prime agricultural and forest land. Rather, it looks to be an enabler for the politician–bureaucrat–developer nexus to gain access to premium acreage.

Most state governments will be delighted with this amendment as well, because they too have been wanting to get their hands on lucrative slices of the forest pie. The BJP-led Uttarakhand government, for example, is known to have wanted to ‘free up’ forest land by tweaking with the definition of forests.

Three years ago, the Uttarakhand state government wanted to define ‘deemed forests’ as a patch of 10 hectares or above, with 60 per cent canopy density and 75 per cent native plant species.

This was obviously being done to suit the builders’ lobby, as they could then go ahead and build in several places without requiring any clearance from the forest department. The project got shot down when several environmentalists, led by Dehradun-based Reenu Paul, took the government to court.

The Modi government’s intentions on environmental policy have been questionable from the start. The government’s decision to stop showing the impact of infrastructure projects on the environment— which used to be shown on Parivesh, the environment ministry website—was taken late in 2022. Obviously the ministry was finding it difficult to cope with the flak they were facing, following the host of anti-environment decisions they had taken.

These included the decision to push through the ‘holistic development’ of Great Nicobar Island, which will involve the loss of 130 sq km of rainforests and the denotification of key tribal reserves, and establishing several mining projects to cause a loss of primary forests in central India.

The government is now trying to justify the decision to push through this amendment by insisting that growing more trees and plantations to compensate will help in the creation of carbon sinks. But experts warn that natural forests are the most effective way to achieve carbon sequestration.

Plantations worldwide have proved a failure in harbouring biodiversity or in performing ecosystem functions. But who is going to tell the government this?

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