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Green credits: Govt of India seeking to allow private investors to 'exploit' forest land

Counterview Desk

In an open letter to the Union minister for environment, as many 91 former civil servants, objecting to the new green credit rules, have said that, if implemented, these would have “adverse impact on the environment”. Recently notified by the Government of India, the ex-officials belonging to top civil services of the country, said, the rules, notified recently, should be “withdrawn”.
Forming Constitutional Conduct Group (CCG), the letter said, the new rules require state forest departments to identify sparsely covered ‘forest’ lands, offering these to private agencies/ investors for afforestation. For each tree planted, the investor earns one green credit. The credits can be traded “for non-forestry activities.”
“No amount of money can be a substitute for the land required for our forests, and for our biodiversity and wildlife to thrive”, the letter insisted.

Text:

The assault on India’s forests seems continual and unrelenting! The recently passed Forest Conservation Amendment Act 2023 which allows diversion of forests for defence/security infrastructure, feeder roads for road and rail-side establishments, surveys for coal, diamonds, etc. without any oversight of the central government, expert committees or scientists, as stipulated in the past, is a disaster and we in the Constitutional Conduct Group had written an earlier open letter on 12 July 2023 criticising this. The government has now come up with certain rules that will further worsen the disaster: the provision for earning Green Credits by agencies seeking to take possession of forest lands for “developmental” projects.
We are a group of former civil servants who have served the Central and State governments in various capacities. We have no affiliation with any political party but feel strongly about upholding the provisions of the country’s Constitution. It, therefore, disturbs us greatly to find that the responsibility that is enjoined on every citizen under Article 51A (g) of the Constitution, ‘to protect and improve the natural environment including forests, lakes, rivers and wildlife...’, is disregarded and violated by the government.
Many people would be aware of the significant efforts made over the years to save the forests of India, especially through the Forest Conservation Act, 1980 and Supreme Court orders. During the period from Independence to the enactment of the Forest Conservation Act 1980, some 4.2 million hectares of forests had been converted to other uses such as real estate, infrastructure, mines, etc. After the 1980 Act, diversion of forest land, from 1980 until recently, was reduced to approximately 1.5 million hectares, as any diversion needed to be first approved by the central government.
Protection of forests was further strengthened by the Supreme Court judgement in 1996, commonly called the Godavarman case, which recognised forests as per the dictionary meaning. It also brought under the oversight of the central government forested areas with other agencies like the revenue department, the railways, and private owners. It is widely accepted that these two actions have saved the forests of India from decimation. It pains us to see that the government is now undoing the good that was done. And that this is being done when the whole planet faces the crises of climate change and global warming.
The Forest Conservation Act 1980 brought in checks and balances over diversion of forest lands keeping in mind the ecological importance of our forests and biodiversity and their role in the sustenance of people. That Act recognized that when it was inevitable to divert forests for any human centric development activity, an equal area of land outside forests needed to be obtained by the user agency and given to the forest department for afforestation (called compensatory afforestation), so as to ensure that the area of forest land in the country does not get reduced.
However, this paradigm is set to change with the Ministry of Environment, Forests, and Climate Change (MoEFCC) bringing in the Green Credit Initiative in October 2023 and the Green Credit Rules on 22 February 2024. These Rules require state forest departments to identify all sparsely covered ‘forest’ lands within their jurisdiction.
These lands will then be offered to private agencies/investors for funding to support planting. On payment of the funds by the investor, the forest department will complete afforestation within two years. For each tree planted, the investor earns one green credit. These green credits can then be traded by the investor for diversion of forest lands for non-forestry activities.
The scheme’s shortcomings are obvious. No amount of money can be a substitute for the land required for our forests, and for our biodiversity and wildlife to thrive. Yet the government is trying to make it easy for entrepreneurs and industrialists to acquire forest land by permitting them to offer, in exchange, money (in the form of green credits), instead of land for land as was the case so far.
When forest land can be so easily obtained by private entrepreneurs, it does not take much imagination to realise that the extent of land legally classified as forests at present will steadily shrink until there is virtually nothing left. A new set of Green Credit invaders may ask for diversion of some of our densest and best protected forests for commercial purposes like mining, industry and infrastructure.

According to foresters and environmentalists, a dangerous fallout of this order is the ecological disaster that will follow by planting up all kinds of ecosystems with trees. Measuring forests merely by tree count is totally wrong. All forest lands, whether grasslands, wetlands, deserts, scrub forests or open forests are ecological entities in themselves. They harbour a wide variety of animal species endemic to the Indian subcontinent, such as the Great Indian Bustard, the Lesser Florican, blackbucks, wolves, etc. Taking up plantations in these areas will mean an end to the survival of these and other species.

Green Credit invaders may ask for diversion of densest and best protected forests for commercial purposes like mining, industry, infrastructure

But it is not merely the lives of animal species that is at stake. The livelihood of millions of pastoral and semi-pastoral communities depend on these ‘scrub’ and ‘waste lands’, and they will be directly and adversely impacted by this scheme.
The government has issued these orders, ostensibly in the belief that plantations absorb more carbon than natural scrublands. This is not true. Plantations are usually fast-growing monocultures and it is a scientifically proven fact that they are poor at carbon sequestration when compared to natural ecosystems. Compensatory afforestation plantations already undertaken in our country are known to have dubious success rates. At any rate, the government also has huge unspent funds for such afforestation programmes and does not need further investment from any private agency.
It would be a much better plan to merely protect and restore these degraded lands to their original condition. This would result in more carbon sequestration, survival of varied ecosystems and endangered species, and would also serve the needs of people. This would not, however, benefit the private sector at the cost of the community and the country at large.
That such an unscientific order should be issued from the MoEFCC is truly unfortunate, considering that it has in its fold the highly trained, technical Indian Forest Service. It is not only contrary to this service’s mandate of protecting forests and wildlife but also negates the unswerving commitment of its officers to preserve and protect the environment.
It is also important to recognise that ‘green credits’ as a concept is anachronistic, and has been seen as a tool for monetising the natural environment and handing it over to corporates for exploitation. To allow transfer of pristine forest lands to corporates, in exchange for green credits earned by them, by getting them to fund the forest department to plant degraded forest lands, is shocking indeed.
More so, because the ecological values of these lands can be restored by the forest department itself, with the funds already at its disposal. This is a transaction weighted heavily in favour of Big Capital. If the government is really serious about conservation with financial help from the private sector, it should permit relevant, impactful conservation projects as eligible activities under the law governing Corporate Social Responsibility.
Quick, smooth and easy diversion of our forest lands in favour of user agencies is apparently the sole intention of this set of Green Credit rules. We urge the MoEFCC to recognize this danger and withdraw the Green Credits notification expeditiously.
Satyameva Jayate
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Click here for signatories

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