The fear of corruption
In the final analysis, what is troubling the public (which is also the brunt of the article by Bhargav and Dattatri), is that the forest department (and, by implication, all government) is irredeemably and terminally corrupt, and is not fit to be trusted with public resources. This, of course, is a terribly one-sided and jaundiced view, and belied by the very fact that so much forest is still surviving, that
is one of the very few third world countries to have stabilized its forest
cover, that it has still the world’s largest populations of tiger, elephant in
the wild, and so on.
Foresters tend to think that the forest reservation system introduced by the British is to be thanked (or blamed, if you are a social environmentalist) for this, but wildlife enthusiasts would probably claim that it is all because of their Sisyphean efforts. There is obviously a little truth in each of these claims: thanks to the wildlifers, the country was persuaded to set aside natural habitats as wildlife sanctuaries and national parks, that are now some 4% of the total land area (and 20% of the forest area), with all the benefits to the fauna and flora mentioned above.
On the other hand, it is the reservation of forests that has allowed the 20% or so of forest cover to survive, especially in the upper catchment areas of our rivers, thanks to the Indian Forest Act and some other forward-looking colonial legislation like the Punjab Land Protection Act 1900 (enforced in the lower Himalayas in both India and Pakistan), and the wildlife and environmental protection acts.
It can also be accepted that the post-independence National Forest Policy of 1952 erred too much on the side of commercialization of forest operations and alienation of the forest-dependent communities, especially tribals, and the strenuous efforts of the social environmentalist and activists have contributed to the adoption of a revised policy (1988) that is much more suited to a tropical, poor country like India. Surely this revised policy would have been applauded by that arch-conservator, Dietrich Brandis, who set up the Indian forest department and inspired the foundation of the
national forest system and the US Forest Service under its founder-chief,
Gifford Pinchot, in the same period at the end of the nineteenth century.
The whole discussion becomes obviously futile if one starts from the assumption that the states are all corrupt beyond redemption, that the central government is toothless and ill-intentioned, and so on. None of these assumptions is totally nonsensical, but they are not completely true either, and if extended to other sectors, would demand the closing down of the Indian government and the withering away of the Indian state, which some social activists seemingly look forward to.
The rest of us, who do not subscribe to these agendas, will have to continue striving with the existing state and its instruments (and a less than pure and innocent citizenry, as well!), to the best of our limited capabilities and ability to look into the future. We take recourse to the fact that there are so many levels of supervision and oversight in the states: the successive checks and counterchecks at the executive levels, the state planning and voting of budgets, the annual reports and legislative discussions, the watchdog committees, the project review and evaluation processes, internal audit, the accountant-general’s audit, and so on. Unless there is widespread complicity at all these levels, a major scam cannot take place. We comfort ourselves with the thought that all of us, commoner and prince, intellectual and layman, alike are probably going to be proven wrong in the long run. The imminent demise of the forests and squandering of the Compensatory Afforestation (CA) fund is one such prediction that is unlikely. However, as reiterated below, greater consultation of academics and NGOs may be incorporated in order to arrive at a consensus on what to do with the funds (especially the discretionary NPV portion).
Having said this, there are a couple of obvious potential pitfalls that the ministry may need to exercise due diligence about. One is that (as already stated) this Bill proposes to make the States the recipients and custodians of the amounts in credit and to be received in the future, which of course is a reversal of the Court-induced consolidation at the Centre. The SC order of 26-09-2005 deliberates at length on why the State governments cannot lay claim to the NPV payments, which are related to national and global environmental interests, and declares that the public trusts doctrine behoves us to protect the rights of future generations as well, and therefore the CAMPA funds “have to be used for regeneration of eco-system and the same cannot be handed over to any State Government on the premise that ecology is not property of any State but belongs to all being a gift of nature for entire nation” (SC order dated 26-09-2005, Dutta & Yadav, 2011, p.323). As such, the shape of the regular CAMPA was supposed to be got approved by the Court through the CEC, and it would be expected that the ministry would have done this before finalizing the new proposal. If it does so, there may well be a different viewpoint on the need to divest the centre of the accumulated balance as well as the responsibility of administering the account, unless the central government can convince the Court that sufficient and strong safeguards have been built in to keep strict controls on what the amounts can be spent on.
If however the Court is still not convinced of the desirability of divesting the management of the funds to the states, then it would be necessary for the central ministry to accept the primary responsibility to take care of the account, and in that case the central CAMPA would have to be strengthened in many ways, with proper financial and accounting staff to maintain the integrity of the account, as well as sufficient qualified technical staff and supervising officers of the forest service to keep watch on the effective utilization of the resources in the states and to do periodic monitoring, impact assessment, and render qualified and informed advice to the national governing council. In the states as well, it may be possible to set up a wider overseeing mechanism with greater involvement of local ecologists and environmentalists to ensure that the natural forests are not negatively interfered with in the name of restoration and improvement. That, perhaps, may serve to assuage the fears expressed by the authors quoted (Bhargav and Dattatri, 2015) to some extent.
One final point is also made, as an afterthought: why at all do we need to pass a legislation to give effect to the CAMPA? After all, the Supreme Court has been emphatic that the CA and NPV payments do not amount to a tax, but rather should be looked at as a fee for the environmental services that have been consumed by the project concerned. The enabling legislation is the Environment Protection Act or the Forest Conservation Act. The bill as such will probably excite a lot of opposition, as forests and the FCA especially have come to be seen as among the most hated manifestations of the colonial yoke and of central authority, and the state governments are smarting under their impositions. On the other hand, the ministry needs to give a proper shape to the Fund and the mode of managing and utilizing it, providing the states a measure of freedom and a modicum of financial sources that should help to salve their wounds a bit. A serious consideration may be given to the option of tabling a Resolution instead of putting a Bill to vote. This would have the added advantage of providing an easier means of making such changes as may be required by the passage of time or the further orders of the Court in the near future.
Downloadable pdf version:
Bhargav, Praveen and Shekar Dattatri (2015): Sowing the seeds of a disaster. The Hindu, 29 July 2015, p.11 (
Dutta, Ritwik and Bhupender Yadav (2011). Supreme Court on
Conservation. Third Edition. Universal Law Publishing Co., New Delhi.
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.