State governments cannot impose any additional environmental or conservation directions for infrastructure projects in forest areas other than what has already been stipulated by the Centre while granting forest clearance to a project, the Union environment ministry has said.
Independent experts say the move will further centralise powers to monitor infrastructure projects and constrain state governments’s decision-making in issues related to forest and wildlife conservation.
In a letter dated March 22 to additional chief secretary (forest)/ principal secretary (forest) of all state governments and Union territories, the ministry stated that: “A state government/UT administration will not impose any additional condition after in-principle approval has been accorded.
However, state governments can enforce certain additional conditions with the permission of the central government in exceptional situations, it added.“…In exceptional situations, giving due justifications, additional conditions may be imposed with the prior approval of the central government,” the letter said.
The ministry has issued this clarification after the Odisha government sought the implementation of a site-specific wildlife management plan in a mining project. The Odisha government had also requested the project proponent to pay a certain portion of compensatory levies towards implementation of the wildlife management plan in the mining lease area, according to the letter that does not elaborate on the details of the project or its timeline.
Under the Forest Conservation Act, 1980, every time forest land is diverted for non-forest purposes such as mining or industry, the project developer is supposed to identify land for own use and pay for planting forests over an equal area of non-forest land, or when that is not available, twice the area of degraded forest land. Presently, this money gets collected under the compensatory afforestation fund under the Union environment ministry and is used for conservation and wildlife management purposes.
An environment ministry official said on condition of anonymity that while the rules pre-existed, they have been clarified now.
“The law states that prior approval of the central government is needed for projects involving diversion of forests. It’s a given that the project has been deliberated upon. Interjections by the state after an approval has been granted creates confusion and hurdles in monitoring of the project. This provision was always there. We have only reiterated that in our letter,” said a senior environment ministry official.
However, despite the law, state governments have several times previously taken decisions on environmental clearances in forest areas. For instance, in 2019, the Centre told the Supreme Court in an affidavit that although the Parsa coal mine in Chhattisgarh’s Hasdeo Arand forests had been given initial clearance by the Union environment ministry, the state government could take a call on the fate of the project depending on the findings of a biodiversity study of the region by the Indian Council of Forestry Research and Education (ICFRE).
While granting forest clearance to a project under the Forest (Conservation) Act, it is presumed that the state government has already examined the proposal properly at all levels and has exercised due diligence. “Hence, stipulation of additional conditions after according in-principle approval is against the norms and also demonstrates that such diligence was not made,” said the letter uploaded on the Union environment ministry’s Parivesh website last week.
“We saw similar attempts to centralise various processes related to mining in the mining reforms brought in by the Centre. It’s extremely worrying. This basically means that even if the state government notices some violations or thinks there is a need to impose additional conservation measures, they can’t. Every time there is a violation of environmental conditions, forest dwellers approach the collector, divisional forest officer or state ministers. But increasingly state governments are losing their powers even over subjects like forests, which are in the concurrent list,” said Alok Shukla, convener of the Chhattisgarh Bachao Andolan, a non-government organisation (NGO) working for the rights of tribal people in the state.
“These directions pose a serious challenge to collaborative federalism as forests are part of the concurrent list of the Constitution. While state governments need prior approval of the central government, it is the state government which has the powers to issue final orders giving effect to forest diversions, de-reservation or tree felling. The central government is seeking to constrain the powers of the state governments to pose additional conditions, which may be required it new facts have emerged during the pendency of the proposal or which may essential to ensure in-depth inquiry or legalise necessary conservation measures,” said Kanchi Kohli, legal researcher at the Centre for Policy Research.
In recent months, the central government has eased several environmental norms. Last month, an environment ministry committee recommended relaxingrules for ecotourism projects by allowing construction of “non-permanent” structures in protected areas without permission from the Centre.Experts say that a lack of definition of “non-permanent” structures would allow developers to build several structures in wildlife-rich areas.The ministry has also started the process of amending the FC Act to make way for these guidelines to be implemented.