Himachal is cheered up after the Cabinet Committee on Economic Affairs gave a nod to the Rs 1583.18 crore two-laning project (in formation of four) for 28 kilometers Kathalighat to Shimla section (Dhalli) of NH-22 (old numbering). But environmental activists are worried about adverse impacts of proposed felling of over 33,000 trees including seedlings and saplings. An area of 919 bigah would be acquired for the project. Considering unchecked rise in vehicular emissions and pollution from other harmful practices like biomass/garbage-burning in open in Shimla and Solan.
So far, National Highway Authority of India (NHAI) has paid for only Solan to Parwanoo phase and this cost includes cost of land acquisition, resettlement and rehabilitation and other pre-construction activities. NHAI has already paid Rs. 8, 71,92,790 to the Compensatory Afforestation Fund Management and Planning Authority (CAMPA) and Rs 9,31,40,305 to the Divisional Forest Officer, Solan.
An RTI activist, Himanshu Thakur, questioned Ministry of Environment, forest and Climate Change (MeEF) about how much CAMPA funds were received and how the funds would be utilized. He sought information regarding the status of CAMPA fund utilization in last 10 years in the state of Himachal Pradesh. But Rajagopal Prashant, CPIO and AIG (FC), did not provide required information saying “No information is available with this office and that the application was being transferred to the Government of Himachal Pradesh for provision of information if any.” But even State Forest Corporation seems to be evading the matter as they haven’t provided any information to the applicant.
Parwanoo- Shimla NH 22 widening and four-laning work began in 2015, and is under progress. NHAI has not initiated widening work at Dharampur, Jabali, and Kummarhatti. It suggests that either the required land isn’t acquired yet or the matter pertains to ligation. In either case, the project could witness long halt, and in that case, it would be nothing more than a gimmick.
So far, 11,984 trees are felled in the first phase from Parwanoo-Solan. Now, thousands of more trees are about to be axed in next phase from Kaithalighat to Shimla. The HP State Forest Corporation has already marked 21,000 trees, 10,221 saplings, 1,604 seedlings, and 5,206 poles to be cleared. The trees marked for felling include Chil, Deodar, Ban, Kharik, Shisham, Siris, Mango, Eucalyptus, Popular, Tun Akhrot, Robinnia and others.
Apparently, between trees and so called “development”, the later is winning. After all, we all want “development”. There is no doubt that the four-lane will minimize traffic congestion, reduce journey distance by 17 kilometers and save up to 45 minutes, and boost transportation of goods, thus, leading to overall development of the state.
Shimla is excited about the four-laning project, but only very few people wonder how it would affect the ecology. The National Green Tribunal was forced to ban commercial activity and entry of fossil fuel vehicles into Rohtang region after excessive air pollution was reported in surveys. NGT needs to take notice of this issue as well to ensure compliance to guidelines provided under Conservation Act.
Trees absorb carbon-dioxide and provide living creatures with breathable oxygen. So, the trees are like purifiers and it does matter when thousands of them are suddenly cleared. The emission levels remain the same, owing to rise in vehicular traffic and other human activities. But clearly we have lost huge chunk of forest and would continue losing more. The other critical issues related to it are destruction of wildlife habitat, especially avian habitat/nests. That’s why, under the provision in Conservation Act 1980, guidelines have mentioned placement of synthetic nests around the affected area due to land diversion, but lack of cognisance to this seems prevalent on Parwanoo – Solan highway.
Disappearance of trees is feared to lead to soil erosion and trigger landslides on newly constructed highway. Further, monkey-human conflict in Himachal is an apt example of what deforestation leads to. Not just Shimla or Solan, “development” is asking for tree-sacrifice in other districts too, like tree felling for widening of National Highway (NH)-88 between Hamirpur and Balugloa village, near Jawalamukhi, in Kangra district. About 2,023 trees were marked in January this year for the proposed widening here.
No clue of Tree Plantation/Afforestation
According to the permissions obtained by NHAI under the Forest Conservation Act 1980, the Forest Corporation must find a barren land double the cleared area and plant trees for afforestation and undertake maintenance and care for 5-10 years. In case of Shimla-Parwanoo four-laning, Forest Department of Himachal Pradesh was given compensation for tree-felling or fund for the afforestation work, which is about 18 crore in this case. The trees will take many decades to grow into the size of trees cleared, so plantation should have been under progress.
However, an RTI filed by an activist, Himanshu Thakur, revealed that the government has no clue about afforestation work. The RTI filed sought information regarding the CAMPA funds utilization, area selected for tree-plantation and progress made so far, but the MoEF clearly replied that there is no such information available with the office and transferred it to HP Govt. offices that haven’t acknowledged receiving any funds for afforestation.
That smells like another corruption scam in making in which money meant to plant thousands, may be lakhs, of trees would just go into the pockets of few individuals. No afforestation work is being carried out when it must have begun with approval of four-laning project itself. At least that’s what the response to the mentioned RTI application indicates.
NHAI paid the amount to CAMPA and HP Forest Corporation for compensatory afforestation. The point is, none of the departments have acknowledged receiving the money, and, on top of that, they have no information about when and how compensatory afforestation will be done. CAMPA says state will answer and the state is evading the matter by not answering it,
|Other information sought in RTI Act 2005|
|1||In the process of widening (4 lane) of National Highway-22 (old numbering) from Parwanoo till Solan in Himachal Pradesh, how many trees have been cut till now?|
|2||Whose permission was sought for the cutting of trees? Please provide the copy of permission letter|
|3||Has NHAI paid any amount of State Forest Corporation for the cutting of trees?|
|4||Who will be having the ownership of the wood of these trees?|
|5||Will NHAI be planting trees in order to compensate the loss of flora and fauna or the particular area?|
NHAI in reply said that it has already transferred funds to the CAMPA account as compensation/fund for afforestation. So, most information sought under RTI was provided except about afforestation work.
Strict guidelines were given under Forest Conservation Act 1980 to cut only as many trees as necessary. The guidelines also require planting new plants on either side of the four-lane as well as on the verge of the road. 11,504 trees had been felled by the end of March 2016 and the wood of these trees belongs to NHAI.
On ground level, the plantation work is not even in the priority list. As observed earlier, HP government is not at all serious regarding critical ecological issues. It has not moved a single muscle to monitor and keep a check on activities causing air, soil and water pollution. The condition is so poor that Shimla Municipal Corporation is directing its sanitation workers to burn garbage instead of collecting it because the capital city does not have an operational solid waste treatment plant. Furthermore, the Jaundice outbreak due to contamination of Ashwani Khud had claimed many lives and had landed about 15,000 people in hospital, which clearly exposed blatant corruption in SMC, PCB, and IPH.
Other than legally felled trees, illegal activities are also leading to deforestation. The tree-massacre in Tara Devi forest in Shimla, in which 500 trees were felled, is an apt example of it. Surprisingly, majority of illegal tree felling was reported from the home district of the forest minister Thakur Singh Bharmauri.
Deforestation is inevitable as we all seek “development”. All we can do is to delay it or work on afforestation. So, tree plantation and rehabilitation of wildlife must be top priority for any sensible and responsible government. Sadly, the awareness among people regarding these critical issues is negligible, and that further encourages government’s lethargic attitude.
Govt Legitimizing and Legalizing Environmental Violations for Business by Amending EIA Rules: Activists
Shimla-While in statements, the politicians in power at the Centre and State Governments have been expressing concerns over environmental issues and ensuring the people that they are committed to protect and preserve the environment, the reality is contrary to it. The most recent evidence is the proposed 2020 draft amendments to the Environment Impact Assessment (EIA) Notification. With these amendments, the process of environmental assessment before granting permission to execute commercial projects, like hydropower projects in Himachal Pradesh, would be reduced to merely a formality.
Environmental activists and people’s organisations from across Himachal have written to the Union Ministry of Environment, Forests and Climate Change (MoEF&CC) to scrap the 2020 draft amendments to the Environment Impact Assessment (EIA) Notification proposed by it.
These activists and environmental protection groups are of the opinion that the EIA Notification, first issued in 1994 under the Environment Protection Act 1986, is a critical mechanism that regulates clearances granted to all kinds of development projects and economic activities in the country. It is one of the environmental decision-making processes that makes it mandatory for project developers to not just study the socio-economic, ecological and other impacts of a proposed project but also place them in front of the affected communities for their opinions and objections, thus, ensuring the process of a free, fair and informed consent. However, this notification has been amended and read down several times in the last two decades, in favour of ‘easing the norms’ for business. The latest draft continues to move in the direction of rendering the EIA process a mere formality.
The submission made by HP groups states,
“In the context of the already vulnerable and sensitive Himalayan region, flouting of various provisions of even the present EIA notification has heavily impacted the local ecology and livelihoods of the people. The new amendments will only legitimize and legalize these violations and this will mean irreparable damage to the Himalayan ecosystem”.
The key objections raised are around exemptions of a variety of projects from the mandatory ‘Public Consultation’ process as well as the dismantling of this process itself.
“The reduction of the time prior to public hearing from 30 to 20 days is also highly objectionable. In the given 30 day period itself, the information about Public hearings does not reach all the affected areas which are often spread out widely in case of mountains with some project-affected communities residing in remote and inaccessible terrains. Here accessing information takes a long time and reducing this time to 20 days will completely exclude such people from raising their grievances and suggestions in the public consultation. This is a clear attempt to block their participation in the environmental decision-making process”
said R.S Negi of Him Lok Jagriti Manch, Kinnaur.
“It is shocking that the amendments include allowing post-facto clearance, which means that the project proponent can start work and before they have obtained environmental clearance. If the basic precautionary principle on which the EIA notifications is grounded is itself not followed it can lead to a disastrous situation for the ecology and local people. In this situation who is going to be responsible for the losses? If the project proponent is not in a position to pay for losses, will the MoEF&CC take the responsibility of losses? This provision will encourage project developers to bypass the process of environmental decision making. We absolutely oppose this amendment”,
said Prakash Bhandari of Himdhara Collective.
The 2020 draft also dilutes the guidelines for monitoring and compliance of Environment conditions.
“Already the system of monitoring is weak, the conditions lose, the pollution control board and companies non-accountable, thus, leading to widespread destruction of local ecology and impacting health, lives, and livelihoods of project-affected communities. In the case of hydropower projects, for instance, the illegal and unmonitored dumping of muck along river beds, in forests and on common lands, has damaged pastures, disrupted the flow of the rivers, and caused massive disasters when floods occur. The proposed changes will give a free reign to those profiting from extractive and polluting projects,”
according to Kulbhushan Upmanyu of Himalaya Bachao Samiti.
It is ironic that on one hand, the global COVID crisis has thrown up several studies showing that pandemics like COVID emerge from ecological degradation and forest loss, and on the government is pushing for policy changes which will accentuate the environmental crisis that the country is already reeling under.
“If the MoEF&CC wants to change the environmental laws, it should carry out countrywide regional consultations”,
added Uma Mahajan of Himachal Van Adhikar Manch.
The country, especially ecologically diverse yet climate-vulnerable regions like the Himalayas need a robust and strong environmental regulatory and governance regime that makes project proponents accountable and keeps the affected communities and ecological concerns at the centre of the EIA and environmental decision-making process.
Notably, MoEF&CC had called for citizen’s comments before May 11 but this deadline was extended upto June 30 and now August 11 as environmentalists and concerned groups expressed outrage that calling for public inputs on this critical law amidst the COVID led lockdown was unjustified. The MoEF&CC has in this period received thousands of objections highlighting the new draft as anti-people and environment.
The demand is to scrap these proposed amendments for the sake of the environment.
Submission Made to Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change by Activists and Organizations
SC’s Forest Diversion Regulation a Blockade on Forest Rights Act Implementation in Himachal: Himdhara
Shimla–Himdhara Collective, a Himachal-based environment research and action group, has released a report on the implications of the regulation imposed by the Supreme Court on forest diversion under the Forest Rights Act 2006 in Himachal, through a series of orders passed last year. This brought to a screeching halt the implementation of Section 3(2) of the FRA which grants powers to gram sabhas and Divisional Forest Officers to divert upto 1 hectare of forest land for 13 types of village welfare activities like roads, schools, community centres, PDS shops etc.
The court orders were based on the conclusions drawn by a Supreme Court Monitoring Committee, headed by a retired PCCF, V.P Mohan, that the diversions were leading to green felling and deforestation in the state. Initially, a stay was imposed on all green felling in the state (in a matter of forest diversions under FCA 1980 and FRA 2006) on 11th March 2019. This stay was partially relaxed but the Supreme court sought all FRA proposals to be brought before it for further diversion.
The report titled ‘Missing the forest for Trees’, assesses the ground reality behind the conclusions drawn by the Supreme Court Monitoring Committee based on which these diversions have been restricted.
“We have found that the Supreme court’s orders need to be reviewed because the alarm raised by the V.P Mohan committee with regard to FRA was a false one”,
stated authors of the report which is based on analysis of RTI information as well as field research.
RTI data sought from the Forest department for all cases under section 3(2) of the Forest Rights Act 2006 from 2014 to 2019 (up to January 2019), was analysed to reveal that 17237 trees were felled in an area of 887.56 hectares for 1959 activities in 41 of the 45 forest divisions of the state.
Roads, followed by schools and community centres dominate the type of activities carried out. Of the total land diverted 91% is for roads. It was found that almost 64% of these diversions showed ‘nil’ trees felled. The average number of trees felled per hectare is very low (19.52) and it may be induced that most activities have been carried out in areas with open forest or no trees.
Rohru (Shimla), Nachan(Mandi), Kinnaur and Chopal were some of the divisions which had a large number of diversions, again mostly for roads.
Case studies we carried out in Mandi and Kangra district showed the desperate need for amenities like village link roads and schools. In Himachal, there remain about 41% villages that have no road connectivity which affects access to health, education and market centres.
On the other hand, large development activities like four lane highways, hydropower projects and transmission lines, have had a much larger ecological footprint in terms of tree loss in the state compared to the very minute, incomparable diversions under FRA.
The report also finds that as far as green cover is concerned in the period corresponding to the high number of forest diversions under FRA (2015-2019), the forest survey of India’s statistics show a 333 sq.km increase in the forest cover.
Why development rights under FRA important for Himachal?
1.No Land available with revenue departments and panchayats for ‘welfare activities’ thus forest land only option
The report concludes that given the fact that 2/3rd of the geographical area of the state is recorded ‘forest area’ where strict forest laws have restricted non-forest use, the FRA provides relief for communities to access basic welfare facilities, which should be seen as their fundamental right and therefore should not be hindered.
2.Cumbersome, costly and lengthy process under FCA 1980
Before FRA it was the Forest Conservation Act, 1980 which governed forest diversion even for small local development activities. This required not only permission from the Central Government (MoEFCC Regional or Delhi Office) but also warranted that user agencies deposit funds (Net Present Value of trees) to carry out Compensatory Afforestation. The whole diversion process under FCA was cumbersome, lengthy and costly, and thus a major hurdle in providing the rural areas, especially remote areas, access to basic welfare development facilities.
“The section 3(2) of the FRA provides relief for both governmental departments and local communities as it overrides the FCA and puts in place a simple and decentralized process for diversion”states the report.
3.FRA is meant to correct the problems that were posed by strict central forest laws
The Forest Rights Act was passed by the parliament of India in 2006 recognising that across the country there are lakhs of communities dependent on land which is legally categorised as ‘forest land’ and are unable to exercise their basic livelihood and development rights due to extremely strict forest laws. Under this act’s Section 3(1), forest-dependent communities can file claims for their individual and community rights exercised before the cut-off date of 13th December 2005.
“As it is Himachal has been sluggish with FRA implementation and only 136 titles have been issued under section 3(1). But atleast the government was proactive with the implementation of section 3(2). With the Supreme court orders regulating this provision, there seems to be an impression amongst the implementing agencies and officials that there is an over-all blockade on FRA in the state”
added members of the collective.
The report has recommended that the state government and nodal agency for the Act – the Central Ministry of Tribal Affairs, put forth the case in favour of section 3(2) of the FRA strongly in front of the Supreme Court and also move swiftly to ensure implementation of all provisions of this law in Himachal.
HP Govt Exempts Use of Plastic Straws Attached with Beverages for 6 Months
Shimla: The use of integrated plastic straws attached with tetra pack of beverages are exempted temporarily for a period of six months in Himachal Pradesh, informed a spokesperson of the state government on January 31, 2020.
He informed that the exemption would be a subject to the implementation of Action Plan submitted by M/s Tetra Pack India Pvt. Ltd., AARC under Extended Producer Responsibility.
During the relaxation period, the manufacturers and producers are to come out with an alternative to plastic straw, which is bio-degradable, he informed. A notification in this regard has been issued recently.
He said that other provisions of the notification issued by Department of Environment, Science and Technology of HP on September 20, 2019, which imposes complete ban on plastic cutlery such as spoons, bowls, katories, stirring sticks, forks, knives, straws made of plastic, would remain banned.
He said that this notification will come into force with immediate effect.
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