Monday, October 26, 2015

23 Delegating the CAMPA fund to the states, and the prophecies of doom. Managing the Compensatory Afforestation Fund in India-II

Apprehensions about the proposed CAMPA structure

We now come to the basis of the apprehensions that the new bill, if passed, will result in the wholesale squandering of the corpus. There are two aspects to this imputation: one, that the money will be used by  the states for all sorts of inappropriate things like huge buildings or expanding facilities for headquarters, once the vigilance of the centre and the SC is relaxed; and second, that the moneys will be misappropriated by making bogus accounts without any work in the field. We consider these two aspects here.

The CA portion, as well as the monies collected for specific works like catchment area treatment or PA improvement, are more or less tied funds that cannot easily be diverted into foolhardy activities by the states. Obviously, the NPV portions are not tied to particular sites or models, and are therefore available as a discretionary fund, and here is where the apprehension starts that the forest departments will tend to use them for all sorts of things that will not serve the purpose of compensating for the ecological damage occasioned by the development (non-forestry) projects, or worse still, will come up with all sorts of flashy proposals to impress the political masters and fritter away the money. Of course, forest departments are not all so reckless, but still there is a germ of realism in this fear, as we see often that governments and politicians like schemes that are out of the ordinary, seemingly innovative and even revolutionary (such as bringing back the cheetah), which will catch the public fancy and hence be likely to drain away the discretionary funds. On the other hand, the NPV portion affords a golden opportunity (to use a well-worn cliché), for the department to address many of the gaps which have plagued it in the past in carrying out its responsibilities effectively. As the present minister has stated in the Proceedings of the 5th meeting of the NCAC on 24th November 2014, para 7 (see, states should not see CAMPA funds as a convenient replacement for the regular forestry budgets. The SC has also taken into account such apprehensions and provided specific guidance on how the discretionary CAMPA funds (essentially the NPV component) should be used (in the SC order dated 29-10-2002): “Besides artificial regeneration (plantations) the fund shall also be utilized for undertaking assisted natural regeneration, protection of forests and other related activities” (Dutta & Yadav, p. 212), and as already stated above, the government notification has also followed this lead.

How these guidelines are translated into operational items is, of course, open to debate. The institutional set-up available for this so far has been for the states to submit their annual plans to the ministry, where they are put up to the National CAMPA Advisory Council (NCAC). This governing body, chaired by the minister,  has representatives of the state forest departments (in the old notification dated 23-04-2004, it was the PCCFs of 6 states, one from each Region, by rotation), as well as independent experts or civil society members. This is the watchdog committee that issues overall guidelines, as well as passing the annual operational proposals of the states. For instance, looking at Agenda item iv, p.3 of the proceedings of the 5th meeting of the NCAC on 24th November 2014 (op. cit.), reference is drawn to a list of items which the states have been “dissuaded from incurring”, which are stated to be mainly “in the nature of administrative and recurring expenditure”; still, the states were pressing “hard” for permission for some at least of the items “which were meant for protection, and for upgrading the skills in the Forest Department through e-initiatives to better subserve the purpose of monitoring of ongoing activities” (ibid.). In my experience, what the states would dearly like to use these discretionary (NPV) funds for, would be to strengthen the infrastructure and facilities, reach wages and provisions, vehicles and communications, uniforms and arms to the watchers in the field, rather than only afforestation. Such knotty questions of what is reasonable are always before the officials in the ministry (who have to provide their best guidance to the minister). The NCAC has decided, in the instance quoted, that out of the NPV funds allocated in the annual plan,

“…not less than 70% should be earmarked for the following core activities which include forest regeneration – ANR, plantations, implementation of Working Plan prescriptions, forest protection and conservation measures, and management of notified protected areas. In addition, upto 5% may be used for applied and need based research; and upto 10% may be used for communication/ ICT and capacity building and training programmes. […] The Committee recognized that, keeping in view the sanctity of CAMPA funds (emphasis added) and the necessity  to approach any demand for their use with the utmost care and caution (emphasis added), not more than 15% of the allocation to the State out of the NPV component could be allowed to be used for items hitherto placed in the category of items of work on which States are dissuaded from incurring expenditure.”

Knowing the right thing to do

Of course, there can be many divergent views on what is worthwhile and what amounts to “colossal mistakes” as the authors (Bhargav and Dattatri, op. cit.) call the forest clearance decisions of the government and the afforestation activities of the forest department. The model of forest restoration termed ANR (Assisted Natural Regeneration), for instance, is seen by some as a good departure from the “mindless tree planting” of the past (ibid.), but others have criticized it as leading to indiscriminate weeding and cleaning of the undergrowth (to ‘assist’ natural seedlings or coppice shoots of tree species to establish themselves) at the cost of a host of food and medicinal plants. Another example is the improvement of water and fodder in the forests for wildlife which is frequently urged with the best of intentions to reduce man-animal conflict (endorsed by the environment minister as well, see the 08-06-2015 datelined article at, but such measures have been criticized in the past by wildlife experts as interfering unduly with the existing habitat and artificially boosting population growth rates, which will have overall negative impact. 

Bhargav and Dattatri, on their part, have said (op. cit.) that the main activities needed to be funded are “to consolidate large Reserved Forest blocks, PAs, and the creation of wildlife corridors”, and “natural restoration or regeneration of degraded forests”, which can be achieved by just the “appropriate protection measures like trenching, fencing and fire prevention”, after which the degraded forest “will then recover through a natural process at a very nominal cost”. This sounds a magical formula, but anybody who has tried it (forester or NGO, government of private) will have found out how difficult it is to actually maintain protection over the long periods required (who will protect the fence itself!), how many enemies there are: weeds, fire, cold, heat, rain, dry spells, termites, herbivores, idle graziers swishing their sticks, trampling, pests and pathogens), and how disheartening the picture of an untended regeneration plot is to the forest staff, the village communities, and to the eye in the sky that everyone wants to monitor the process. 

The picture is even more uninspiring when we insist on planting local hardwoods, which usually show only some 10% survival, while the more hardy exotics like Acacia auriculiformis invariable show much higher survival rates, say 80%, which is the reason that the department plantations are able to pass muster by combining both and reporting a respectable overall average.

This brings me to the last part of the apprehensions, that the money will all be squandered as the entire Rs.35,000 crores are distributed like largesse. That however is not my understanding. The NCAC will still be in overall control of the way the funds are spent, by making the broad policy directions, while the annual operational plans will be duly approved by the executive committee of the NCAC (the state proposals being passed previously through a similar two-tier state CAMPA set-up). After all, that is how the funds are being deployed even now; merely by making the states the primary account holders, it does not mean that they will have a freedom to dispose of the moneys without waiting for the central ministry’s green signal.

My concern, however, is that the major change, which is that the CA and NPV payments should go directly into the state CAMPA accounts, needs to be cleared in principle by the Supreme Court,  especially as it has been so emphatic in establishing the national interests involved (see above). There is the clear direction that any new arrangement will be cleared through the Supreme Court: even in the 5th NCAC meeting of 24 November 2014 cited above, agenda item viii, while conceding the need to exceed the 1000 crore annual limit imposed by the SC, on account of inflation, and opining that the cap should not apply to the CA component, which after all was a pre-condition of the FC clearance itself, the NCAC has only instructed the ministry to file an application before the Supreme Court for clarifications in the matter, rather than issuing orders suo moto

In the present case of the CAF bill itself, it is not clear whether it has been passed through the SC scrutiny (which would entail examination by the CEC); it will be advisable to do so before subjecting it to a vote in Parliament to avoid any unpleasant surprises.

It would be a mistake if anybody assumes that the CAF bill will give a green signal to open the floodgates; in any case even the forest departments will not be able to deal with such a huge influx of funds all of a sudden. On the other hand, it is also true that deployment of the CA portion has been badly delayed, so much so that even the lands originally identified for CA may in many cases be no longer available (as they are in scattered locations, not part of the regular beats of the forest staff). So there is also a case for increasing the annual allocations, without assuming that they will be squandered away. However, the main motivation of the CAF legislation is to make the process of the states getting their funds less laborious and time-consuming, because in the annual cycle of budgeting and accounting that we are required to follow, the funds reach so late that the time-bound operations of sowing, raising nurseries, planting and so on are thrown completely out of rhythm, contributing to poor performance.

In the third and final segment, some general remarks will be made on the attitude to corruption.

Downloadable pdf version:


Bhargav, Praveen and Shekar Dattatri (2015): Sowing the seeds of a disaster. The Hindu, 29 July 2015, p.11 (Bangalore).

Dutta, Ritwik and Bhupender Yadav (2011). Supreme Court on Forest Conservation. Third Edition. Universal Law Publishing Co., New Delhi.

Government of India (2004). Handbook of Forest (Conservation) Act, 1980. Ministry of Environment & Forests, New Delhi.

Ramesh, Jairam (2015). Green Signals. Ecology, Growth and Democracy in India. Oxford University Press, New Delhi.

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