Reconciliation exercise could potentially give private parties an idea of how much land is available for compensatory afforestation, say experts
On May 26, the national authority in charge of compensatory afforestation announced a decision to undertake a reconciliation exercise to match the extent of forest land diverted for non-forest purposes with the amount of plantations raised in their stead. This is the first time such an exercise is being undertaken and is required to be completed by June 30.
Whoever wishes to obtain forest land for purposes like building roads, dams or for mining is required to deposit an amount towards carrying out afforestation elsewhere, as per the Forest (Conservation) Act and the Compensatory Afforestation Fund Act (CAMPA).
Now, the national authority in charge of such afforestation activities has directed the relevant bodies at each state or Union Territory to match land identified for compensatory afforestation, amounts deposited by user agencies who sought to divert land and plantations raised as against clearances obtained for forest diversion.
The exercise gains relevance in the backdrop of many concerns flagged with the CAMPA programme, including by the Comptroller and Auditor General (CAG). A 2013 CAG report notes “arbitrary” investment of funds, which lack fairness and transparency and also lax oversight.
But while the reconciliation is a useful process in and of itself, legal experts and researchers emphasise a need to do more, like assess the quality of plantations raised and impacts on land rights of local communities. They also suggest it could be aimed at assessing land available for carrying out plantation activities to meet India’s international climate commitments.
A land-mapping exercise
“The ministry had undertaken an exercise to aggregate compensatory afforestation with the setting up the e-Green Watch website to track land diverted and costs, sites and status of plantations,” said Kanchi Kohli, an environmental law and policy researcher. But for reasons such as lack of adequate data and difficulty in tracking owing to double-counting, it’s likely that the exercise never came to fruition.
Interestingly, the effort to undertake reconciliation now could have a purpose beyond just internal CAMPA reconciliation. “We could potentially have an idea of how much land is available for accredited compensatory afforestation,” Kohli pointed out. “Accredited compensatory afforestation” is a reference to a scheme under Forest (Conservation) Rules notified last year, which encourages private parties to grow plantations that could be made readily available as compensatory afforestation. So, the reconciliation effort could be a land-mapping exercise to assess potential for private plantations in cases where plantations currently raised fall short of target in line with land diverted.
To make CAMPA successful, there is a need to go beyond rudimentary matching exercises like the one being undertaken currently. “We need to assess the quality of the plantations and implications on community land rights,” said Meenakshi Kapoor, an independent researcher working on environmental policy. Numerous news reports have highlighted low survival rate in afforested patches and how afforestation projects, and private plantations in particular, have become a recipe for land conflicts at the local level.
More robust assessments are required to provide legitimacy to India’s climate commitment under UNFCCC processes to create an additional carbon sink of 2.5-3 billion tonnes of CO2 via forest and tree cover. Compensatory afforestation has routinely been touted as one way to achieve this target. But it has come under serious criticism, as has India’s forest cover data. In fact, the government itself has admitted to the possibility of “injudicious plantations” exacerbating forest ecosystem issues.
Questions to the relevant CAMPA authority about what prompted it to undertake the reconciliation effort and whether there are inclinations to assess quality of plantations and fallouts like adverse impacts on community rights have remained unanswered. This copy will be updated if and when a response is received.