The proposed 3097 MV Etalin hydro electric project in Dibang Valley district of Arunachal Pradesh falls under the 'richest bio-geographical province of the Himalayan zone' and under 'one of the mega biodiversity hotspots of the world' as per the Forest Advisory Committee 's (FAC) observations. The forest land set to be diverted is also recognized as a vital tiger area in the region. As per the project proposal, the justification for locating the project in a forest area is to utilize natural resources in order to kick off an era of 'economic development' as quickly as possible. Around 1165 h.a. of forest land is set to be diverted with a whopping number of 278,038 trees for the said project. In lieu of this, compensatory afforestation is proposed to be carried out on land identified in Tawang Forestry Division and Anini Social Forestry Division in order to 'mitigate' the effects of the project.
This is in accordance with the Forest (Conservation) Act, 1980 which requires that an equivalent size of land must be afforested whenever forest land is diverted for non-forest uses. Hence, when a piece of forest land is diverted for an industrial activity (non-forest use), funds are collected from the company (user agency) by the State to carry out afforestation and regeneration of forest ecosystem on another piece of land. This process has paved way for the Compensatory Afforestation Fund Act, 2016 (hereinafter referred to as CAMPA Act) which provides for an institutional mechanism at the Central and State level to carry out the compensatory afforestation works.
The present article revisist questions about the viability of the compensation framework provided by the State on diversions of forest land, in the context of the Etalin project.
Highlighting the State's problematic understanding of 'loss' and 'compensation' of forests:
Adivasis have been ecologically and economically tied to their habitat since decades. Forests play a prime role in contributing to their livelihoods as they depend on utilization of timber and non-timber forest products for various purposes. Since the tribals have inhabited forest spaces for decades, their life and society is shaped around forests. They not only depend on forests for subsistence but also for their spiritual, religious and cultural needs. Every aspect of their cultural life i.e. marriage, death, spiritual activity is interconnected to the forest. Eg: Sarna dharma or sacred grove religion is practiced by some of the forest-dwelling tribal communities, wherein human intervention is prevented in particular areas of the forests due to the religious belief in the trees of that area.
Apart from shaping their culture and traditions, the forests have also significantly enhanced the tribals' capabilities in their approaches to survival. The community life that they lead in the forests has many symbolic uses for them. Many of their cultivation practices depend on the custom of growing land as a community. This entails sharing of knowledge, skills and a kind of dependency among each other. Therefore in addition to the loss of the economic, cultural, religious aspects unique to their lives, the tribals also suffer a diminution of the capabilities to recover them as these capabilities are hugely dependent on the community life and traditional knowledge that the tribals share with each other. On diversion of the forest land, the tribals are forced to migrate elsewhere resulting in a break in their communities. So it's not only the loss of land that the tribals suffer on diversion of the forest but also a deprivation of the life that these communities have built and known for generations.
The utility of the Etalin project is proposed to be high, contributing towards development and resulting in benefits that would flow to the tribal community in the State. Based on its own conception of 'development', the State is essentially depriving the tribals of the life that they lead in synergy with each other and the forests, and providing them with an ineffective way of recovering it through the CAMPA Act. Please see a representation by a member of the Idu Mishmi tribe who reside in the Dibang Valley, addressing the threats that this project poses to them. The letter highlights the strong bond that the tribe shares with tigers and the sanctity of the Talon river, one of the rivers on which the dam is to be constructed, in their lives. For decades, the cultural practices of the Idu Mishmi community have been instrumental in conserving tigers in Arunachal Pradesh. For them, killing tigers is equivalent to killing one's own brother. This project is adverse to forests, biodiversity, local communities and their cultural beliefs.
Planting trees in return does not help in creating forests. Forests are complex ecosystems which have many resources and ecological values that naturally exist and are difficult to be replicated or sustained in a given area. The CAMPA Act doesn't provide much clarity on the compensatory afforestation process except that it will be as per the prescriptions of the respective State's Compensatory Afforestation Fund Management and Planning Authority. Hence, a pristine natural forest is replaced by a 'forest' conceived with an untrammeled prerogative of the State Authority. Forests are turned into an administrative conception, amenable to suit the aims and convenience of the State. The State Authority being the final arbiter of the plantation process, can we count on it to set up forests that sustain the environment and livelihoods?
Concerns have been raised over many compensatory afforestation works wherein monocultures or species-poor plantations have come up in the name of afforestation. These plantations are usually of eucalyptus, acacia or other commercial species that cannot substitute the climate-regulating functions performed by natural forests. Natural forests act as vast carbon sinks absorbing and storing the atmosphere's carbon dioxide. They also act as a bulwark for local communities, against the many effects of natural disasters.
In addition to this fundamentally flawed presumption, the compensatory afforestation framework suffers from other deficiencies too.
Degraded Forest Land and Eviction:
As a rule, non-forest land should be identified for compensatory afforestation. However, in case of non-availability of non-forest land, afforestation must be carried out on degraded forest land twice the extent of the forest area being diverted. The Deputy Commissioner of Dibang Valley reported that non-forest land is unavailable in Dibany Valley to carry out the works. Hence, land identified for compensatory afforestation in Tawang Forestry Division and Anini Social Forestry Division includes degraded forest land. However, after examining the shape files of the CA (compensatory afforestation) sites, the DSS Cell of FC Division has reported that these areas include dense and moderately dense forests too. This is an egregious move by the State as it is essentially replacing rich dense and moderately dense forests with artificial plantations.
The Forest Advisory Committee (FAC) previously has clarified that degraded forest is taken to mean less than 40 per cent crown density, whereas the Forest Survey of India (FSI) classifies lands with a canopy density between 10-40 per cent as 'open forests' and lands that have less than 10 per cent canopy density are treated as 'shrubs'. Therefore, degraded forest land to carry out compensatory afforestation includes both open forests as well as shrubs. Open Forest, as per the FSI Report 2019, covers around 43 per cent of the total forest cover of the country and is the second-largest classification of forests in the country. These forests are home to a large number of tribal communities. According to the factsheet used in the meetings of the FAC, only shape files of the CA sites have been assessed and there is no sign of whether communities residing on these lands identified have been consulted about the afforestation works. This highlights another glaring problem with the CAMPA Act - that it allows land seizures in the name of compensatory afforestation.
According to Land Conflict Watch, an organization that analyzes land conflicts in India, compensatory afforestation plantations in Jharkhand (see here and here ) and Odisha (see here) have forcibly been taken up on community forest lands of the tribals, without the consent of the Gram Sabha which is mandated under the Scheduled Tribes and Other Traditional Forest Dwellers (Recognition of Forest Rights) Act, 2006 ("FRA"). The Land Acquisition Act, 2013 and Provisions of Panchayats (Extension to the Scheduled Areas) Act, 1996 too mandate that consent of Gram Sabha must be taken prior to land acquisition in scheduled areas. The FRA attempted to break away from the bureaucratic mentality that has deprived adivasis of their rights for several years and aimed at democratizing forest governance. Under it, Gram Sabha, a transparent public body where all adult people in a village participate, is given the authority to ensure compliance of decisions taken by it to regulate access to community forest resources and stop any activity adverse to wild animals, forest and biodiversity. Additionally, under the FRA, no forest dweller can be evicted from the land he is occupying unless and until his rights over the land have been settled. However, it has been reported that CAMPA plantations have come up on forest lands where verification of claims over the land is still pending.
The Compensatory Afforestation Fund Rules, 2018 ("CAF Rules") provide that activities for managing and strengthening forests and wildlife will be taken up in consultation with either the Gram Sabha or Village Forest Management Committee, as the case may be. As per the CAF Rules, a mere consultation with either body is enough for carrying out the compensatory afforestation activities. This proviso greatly dilutes the 'consent' of Gram Sabha mandated under various laws and encourages unlawful seizure of lands owned by tribals. It strengthens the decision-making power of State-level forest bureaucracy, who no longer are bound by any disapproval of the Gram Sabhas over the activities. Consultations with Village Forest Management Committees ("VFMC") too don't provide much relief. As defined by the Rules, they are those Committees constituted for joint forest management by the State (popularly known as JFMCs). The Executive Committee (EC) of a JFMC is essentially responsible for conducting activities of the JFMC. It works in close tandem with the Forest Department when preparing the micro plan and annual work plan which have to get administrative approval in order to be operational. Hence, consultations by the State with bodies such as VFMCs that largely depend on Forests Departments threaten the neutrality of such consultations and provide little hope. Moreover, the membership of these Committees is limited hence they are less democratic than Gram Sabhas.
CAMPA plantations erected on several forest lands claimed under the FRA by tribal communities, have adverse impacts on local food security, livelihoods and the environment. The adivasis dwelling in the forests for years have devised methods and traditional knowledge to lead sustainable and low-carbon footprint lifestyles. The symbiotic relation between tribals and forests can no longer be overlooked, especially when there are numerous examples that show strengthening of forest rights and forest conservation go hand in hand. Land has been commodified even under the CA project, and this project has turned into a mere 'mitigation' gimmick in a feeble attempt by the State to give back to the people and the environment when permitting destruction of acres of India's natural forests. The Etalin development project set to displace forests, rich biodiversity therein and local communities is matched with a compensation framework insensitive to the environment and locals.
Alternative Approach towards Compensation :
All these shortcomings of the CAMPA Act demand an alternative compensation structure which looks at the deprivation suffered by the tribals from the viewpoint of the tribals themselves, and engages them in its implementation. The current mechanism which empowers the State and excludes meaningful participation of forest dwelling communities like the Idu Mishmi tribe paves way for ineffective forest conservation policies. The fate of forests and their ecosystems have historically been driven by economic interests, exclusionary of the forest dwellers and their concerns. Forest governance has to be localized to give visibility and voice to the local stakeholders. Now more than ever, when increasing attention has been placed on climate change issues and studies linking zoonotic diseases transmission to deforestation, we must pause and reconsider the goal of 'development' that is being pursued and justified . We must ask in whose name is it being pursued and why is it posed as antithetical to green development.
Views are personal only.
(Author is a 4th Year , B.A. LLB (Hons.) Student at NALSAR University of Law, Hyderabad)