Letter to MoEF: Report on ‘Inviolate’ Forest Areas

The MoEF is seeking comments on  “Report of the Committee to formulate objective parameters for identification of inviolate forest areas”. 23rd Feb is the last day! The comments are  to be sent to secy-moef@nic.inwith subject line “Comments on “Report o the Committee to formulate objective parameters for identification of inviolate forest areas”” as per announcement on MoEF website.The report of the committee can be found at: http://moef.nic.in/assets/Report_on_Inviolate_Forest_area.pdf

Looking at the highly unacceptable nature of the report as it now stands, SANDRP (and its partners) have sent the following letter to the MoEF. We urge as many people to send in comments on this report.

Ms. Jayanthi Natarajan

Minister of Environment and Forests

Email: jayanthi.n@sansad.nic.in

 

 2. Dr. V RAJAGOPALAN: Secretary(E&F)

Email: secy-moef@nic.in

 Subject: “Comments on “Report o the Committee to formulate objective parameters for identification of inviolate forest areas”: Faulty and exclusionary process to determine criteria for the declaration of inviolate forest areas with respect to coal mining

 

Dear Ms. Natarajan and Dr Rajagopalan,

 

We the undersigned would like to put forward our strong objection to the process followed by the MoEF in the drafting of the above mentioned criteria (Report of the Committee to Formulate Objective Parameters for Identification of Inviolate Forest Areas, July 2012) and the short-sighted nature of the approach to identify which forests of India are to be exposed to exploitation by coal mining. Here we would like to point out that the GOM that asked for the expert committee report on this issue was the GOM for environment and development issues in general and if the specific areas need protected since they are inviolate, they should also be inviolate for all purposes and projects?

 This process should be open to public input and engagement, and highlighting that any criteria must take into account the multifaceted nature of human-forest interactions in the country and the millions of livelihoods that depend on the country’s forests, aside from issues of forest cover, forest types, biodiversity, wildlife and endangered species and areas, intact landscapes and hydrological value. Some key missing issues include livelihood issues, cultural issues and interlinking issues with other areas. Another set of parameters missing are: seismically active, flood prone, erosion prone, coastal and such other vulnerable areas. Areas where tribals are in majority should also be excluded without free, prior and informed consent of all the gram sabhas in the region. It is amazing that the social and democratic governance issues get no place in the parameters.

 The grids are not being assigned values of eco sensitivity as per the Pronab Sen Committee report or as per the methodology followed by the WGEEP for the Western Ghats.

 Issue of carrying capacity and cumulative impact assessments and linkages across the areas are key issues.

 The MoEF has kept this process secretive and opaque. By keeping this process behind closed doors and only at internet level in English language, the MoEF has made this process to determine “forest trade-offs” extremely exclusive, expert-driven and narrow in scope. This is contrary our constitution’s stated objectives of upholding democracy and promoting inclusive growth. The fact that this report was finalised in July 2012 and yet only uploaded in the public domain on January 24, 2013, with a period of less than one month for comments, is unacceptable and indicative of the opaque manner in which this critical issue has been approached.

 Our overarching and firm objection is that the MoEF has adopted a non-participatory and undemocratic approach of arriving at these parameters, preferring to work behind closed doors. Our first demand therefore is that these parameters be opened up for extensive public debate, scrutiny and contribution, in such a manner as to hear from those people and organisations that stand to be most affected. This process, of course, cannot be accomplished in less than a month, so we are asking that a new process to achieve the same be announced. Some essential parameters of the process include: translation of the report in local languages, facilitation to ensure that it reaches the communities concerned and affected and a credible independent and transparent process for getting inputs, the process should also be transparent to show how the inputs were used.

 Without prejudice to the above, we would also like to raise strong substantive concerns related to the parameters that have been suggested, which go beyond the issues of process stated above. While the suggested criteria appear to recognise the importance of forests for their biological, landscape, hydrological, wildlife and forest cover and forest type values, they are completely silent on the issue of the livelihoods of forest-dependent communities, their cultural issues and also the inter-linkage issues. As you are no doubt aware, India’s forests are a critical survival resource of millions of Indians. These livelihoods are invariably severely compromised, if not destroyed entirely, by mining, dams and other activities that destroy the forests.

 Such a contradictory approach to India’s forests devoid of their socio-economic context is disconcerting and is also illegal in the context of forest rights act, PESA, Scheduled areas act and Panchayat Raj act. For a country which has a large part of its population dependent directly or indirectly on forests, the future of these same forests cannot be determined solely through the parameters listed in the report.

 The proposed system of weights/scoring is also faulty and arbitrary. The system of averaging the score rigs the process such that a high score on any one parameter (for example, areas notified as Conservation Reserves) is not sufficient to protect the area. By stating that only areas with an average score above 70 will be considered inviolate, the system is in effect discounting the need to protect any area that scores less than 70. This includes, by the committee’s proposal, areas outside the PA network with more than 5 Schedule I species, or areas with occasional wildlife presence, or most Dry Deciduous Forests. The vast majority of wildlife corridors in Western, Central, Eastern, Southern and North Eastern India will fall in these categories.

 Identification of Biodiverse areas through IIRS Data While IIRS data can be one of the useful tools, it cannot be the only one for selection of biodiverse areas. Information and knowledge about the local biodiversity through the involvement of the local communities, academics and civil society should also be used in this process. Under the National Biodiversity Authority Act, Peoples Biodiversity Registers were mandated. Hundreds of villages across India have worked on these registers and documented their biodiversity. The current report cannot just chose to neglect all these institutional and legal mechanisms in place

 A relevant question in this regard is: Do we have sufficient information about for example biodiversity in various Himalayan and Western Ghat forests? New species are being discovered every month even without a concerted effort from the government. Hence, total dependence on IIRS data will be a blunder.

 Wildlife value There is no mention of the aquatic biodiversity in this subject head or anywhere else in the document. Aquatic biodiversity also needs to be taken note of and needs protection. Particularly in the context of protected areas, it needs to be recognised that the aquatic biodiversity within the protected areas would be affected by interventions in the aquatic sources, upstream and downstream of the protected areas and thus would need protection in that respect. Secondly, we have very few protected areas for aquatic biodiversity and we need many more of them.

 Hydrological Value In the committee report there is mention of maintenance of forest cover in the catchment of only first order perennial streams. This, though a step in right direction, is only limited step. It needs to be recognised and understood that the natural forest cover in the catchment of all streams would be of equal importance since destruction of such forest cover has implications for hydrological flow pattern in the downstream areas, aquatic biodiversity in the downstream streams, silt flow patterns in the downstream flows and all the connected water-fish-food-energy securities for the downstream areas.

 This complexity is missed when the suggestion is to declare only the following areas as inviolate areas:

1. The directly draining catchment of the first order streams that are used as drinking water streams for towns and villages,

2. Areas located in direct draining catchments of the first order perennial streams feeding the irrigation and hydropower projects,

3. Areas located within 250 m of the banks of the perennial streams/ rivers, boundary of important wetlands (not clear what is the definition of important wetlands, are all wetlands with area more than 10 ha to be considered as important wetland, is river and its floodplain included in the definition of the wetland?) and storage reservoirs of water supply/ irrigation/ hydropower/ multipurpose projects (does it mean this applies to all natural and man made reservoirs of India, since all such reservoirs are used for one or the other purpose listed here?).

 There is also contradiction when, while on the hand areas within 250 m of the banks of perennial streams and rivers is supposed to be inviolate (and thus get a score of 100), in section 3.6.1 it is suggested that areas within 100 m of the major seasonal streams or rivers should get a score of 70. The trouble is, we do not have ready made baseline data or clear definition as to what areas are supposed to be included when it is mentioned “banks of perennial rivers and streams”. Secondly, there is no clarity as to what would be called a seasonal or perennial river. For example, there are rivers that were perennial but has become seasonal because of human interventions. Then there are some rivers that were seasonal, but have become perennial due to the community conservation actions.

 Moreover as far as hydrological value is concerned, the sustainable existence of value for any sq km grid area would actually depend on what is going on in a much wider area, almost whole of the catchment and also what is happening in the downstream. This reality does not seem to be captured by the suggested methodology. It would not make sense to give value in this sense to only the specific grid, but to protect that much larger area would need to be given implied value and any decisions would need to be keep in mind such inter-linkages.

 The inter-linkages are also important for the implied change in pressures on specific grid element when decisions lead to violation of value of linked grid elements.

 Community conserved areas: Across India, traditional communities have protected stretches of forest, grasslands, wetlands and river through community conservation. As India hosts the CBD this year, we cannot simply neglect Indigenous Community Conserved Areas (ICCAs) even as a signatory to the CBD. All community conserved areas should be declared as inviolate zones.

Fragmentation Similarly, the parameters do not deal effectively with the critical issue of fragmentation of forests as a result coal-mining related infrastructure and ancillary activities – roads, railways, power lines etc. If some areas are recognised as inviolate and the adjoining areas are opened up for mining, there will be demands on the adjoining forests for ancillary infrastructure. Fait accompli arguments will be advanced, as is currently the practice among industry proponents.  Any discussion on excluding mining from critical forest areas needs to take on board cumulative impacts of the land use change which is likely to take place. The MoEF needs to engage with this critical question through widespread debate and consultation as a first step.

Faulty Decision Rules: Decision Rule 1: They have not included already identified ecologically sensitive areas.

Decision Rule 2: A score of 70 is way too high for determining that the grid is inviolate. The rule should be that any area that gets over 70% score with respect to any one of the parameter should be inviolate area.

Decision Rule 3: Only if 90% or more grid from any coal blocks are outside inviolate zone, should there be consideration for such block for mining.

 Compliance A key question in this regard is, who will monitor and ensure that the inviolate forests will remain inviolate? Considering the past track record of the bureaucracy in MoEF, there is little credibility of their ability or interest in keeping such areas inviolate. The example of areas declared earlier as no go areas for mining and how almost of them are now gone is fresh in the minds of the people. We need a credible mechanism involving the local people in ensuring compliance of the decisions. 

Keeping in mind all of the above, we demand that:

 a) The above mentioned criteria be opened up for more detailed scrutiny and debate with an acceptance of the multiple roles played by our forest areas. This process (some essential elements of the process are mentioned above) must be inclusive and broad-based, in contrast to the exclusionary process followed thus far.

 b) That the ministry uphold the spirit of environment justice and the need to safeguard the livelihoods of forest dependent communities as also their cultural issues when making decisions on forest diversion.

 c) That no further forest diversion for mining should be allowed until the conclusion of a transparent and open process as specified in point a) above. This is especially important given the growing conflict in forest areas.

 d) Any further criteria setting process be inclusive and broadbased rather than the exclusive and expert dominated processes like is in the present case. This goes completely against the government’s constitutional commitment to being a sovereign, socialist republic.

 We look forward to your response and the announcement of an open consultation process on the need to protect our remnant forests from coal mining and other activities in forest areas.

 Sincerely

Himanshu Thakkar (ht.sandrp@gmail.com)

South Asia Network on Dams, Rivers & People, 86-D, AD block, Shalimar Bagh, Delhi 110088 (www.sandrp.in)

Parineeta Dandekar (parineeta.dandekar@gmail.com)

SANDRP, Pune.

One Comment on “Letter to MoEF: Report on ‘Inviolate’ Forest Areas

  1. Mangar Bani extends its appreciation for your work. Mangarbani is a forest grove near Delhi which is facing threat from several real estate projects. mangarbani.wordpress.com

    Like

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: