MP opening floodgates for private sector investment in forest areas

Lalit Shastri

BHOPAL: Principal Chief Conservator of Forest and Head of the Forest Department of Madhya Pradesh has grossly undermined the letter and spirit of the Forest Conservation Act, Forest Rights Act and Wildlife Protection Act and written to all Chief Conservators of Forest and the DFOs ordering them to identify degraded forest land falling within their jurisdiction for private investment.

There are three Acts – FCA, Forest Rights Act, and Wildlife Protection Act – that must be amended before the Madhya Pradesh Government can go ahead with its latest initiative to parcel out degraded forest land to the private sector.

Section 2 of the Forest Conservation Act of 2019 imposes restriction on the de-reservation of forests or use of forest land for non-forest purpose without the prior approval of the Central Government. Section 2 (iii) restricts assigning of any forest land or any portion thereof by way of lease or otherwise to any private person or to any authority, corporation, agency or any other organisation not owned, managed or controlled by Government. Obviously taking into consideration Section 2 of FCA, the PCCF Madhya Pradesh has categorically stated that the process of inviting private investment will be initiated after approval from the Government of India. As far as approval from GoI is concerned, the big question is whether it will be blanket approval to parcel out for investment forest land classified as degraded area in Madhya Pradesh or the approval would be sought on a case by case basis. If the State Government goes for a blanket permission from the Central Government and succeeds in getting it at one go that would amount to complete violation of the letter and spirit of FCA

The FCA defines “non-forest purpose” as the breaking up or clearing of any forest land or portion thereof for a) the cultivation of tea, coffee, spices, rubber, palms, oil-bearing plants, horticultural crops or medicinal plants; b) any purpose other than reafforestation.

It is also mandatory for the Central Government to constitute a Committee to advise the Government with regard to the grant of approval under Section 2. This clearly means that there are checks and balances and every proposal for private sector involvement will have to be considered on merit by this committee and its advice will have a bearing when it comes to the Centre granting or not granting approval under Section 2 of FCA.

Coming to the Forest Rights Act, villagers have community rights over forests and many have individual rights to till the forest land, this will come in the way of any arrangement with private organisations.

Then we have the issue of protection of wildlife and their habitat in forest land owned by any private agency. These issues directly linked to Wildlife Protection Act will have to be addressed and tackled before the State Government can think of moving ahead on this path on a fast pace.

Ratapani: Modus operandi- look the other way, allow degradation and then talk of privatisation

Madhya Pradesh PCCF Rajesh Shrivastava, in a letter on Tuesday 20 October 2020, has brought on record that under the Working Plan, out of total notified area of ​​94689 sq km in Madhya Pradesh, leaving aside the area managed by the Forest Development Corporation, about 37420 sq km is classified as degraded area. The letter underscores the need to reforest the degraded areas in order to enhance livelihoods of local communities and to mitigate the effects of climate change and to increase the flow of water to achieve the goal of sustainable operation of ecological services such as water cycle. Considering the positive role of private investment in bringing in capital, the PCCF has highlighted the importance of new technical and managerial skills for the improvement of the forest areas. According to him, there is a consensus at the State Government level to invite private investment to achieve the goal of increasing productivity of these areas.

The present attempt of the State government, the PCCF has stated, “is aimed at inviting capital, new technical and managerial skills in the forestry sector through private investment to improve degraded forests and also increasing employment opportunities for local communities in the short term and to strengthen livelihoods based on natural resources in the long term. By providing local products in place of imported raw materials to wood based industries.”

Further, the PCCF has said “this would help in achieving the goal of “self-reliant India” through sustainablle management of ecosystems and green cover. This would in turn help in achieving the targets set for the country for mitigation of climate change impacts through carbon sequestration”.

This is not the first time that the political masters and the goverment of the day have set their eyes on forest land. Blatant action was taken in this direction even earlier.

Postscript:

After reading the letter of the PCCF, one wonders why the Indian Forest Service is needed any more. If the forest officers have lost their skills and relevance, this service needs to be disbanded – Comment from a retired PCCF, Madhya Pradesh

MP State Biodiversity Strategy and Action Plan 2018-2030 proposes PPP model of outsourced funding option for restoration of degraded forests, but the present Office Memo issued by Head of Forest Force does not take care of interests of Biodiversity Management Committees (BMCs) which is ultra vires with the statutory provisions of The Biological Diversity Act, 2002  Sec 3, 7, 23.b, 24.2, 43 and relevant rules under MP Biodiversity Rules and Central Regulations 2014. In forested areas, MP Government, by an amendment had given the responsibility of BMCs to Joint Forest Management Committees (JFMCs). But the OM issued by HoFF does not attend the issue of BMCs and their statutory powers over Acess to Bioresources on such Protected Forests that may be leased out to private individuals/organisations under PPP model. The ppp model may be ok to restore the degraded forest ecosystems, but under CBD and BD Act Nagoya protocol Fair and Equitable Sharing aspects and Section 43 rights of BMCs needs to be protected. Madhya Pradesh State Biodiversity Board (MPSBB) needs to initiate the issue immediately.

It’s for the government to see that International treaties are honoured under article 51 of the Constitution. If the proposal is executed as it looks, then Panchayat Act, PESA and sovereign rights of people on Biodiversity and Bioresources shall get negated.

Before the State government takes such a drastic decision, public consultation and public hearings are must, because we are not clear how the Ecorestoration issues are going to be attended. What will be the role and responsibilities of JFMC-cum-BMCs, MP Forest Department, Governments (State and Central), and Private Operators. – Comment from a retired PCCF, Madhya Pradesh

Click to read: Black Day for ecology and forest cover 

Also check: What will be the State of forests in Madhya Pradesh after a few years

Download PCCF letter to CCFs and DFOs for Area Selection for Private Investment

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