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SC’s Forest Diversion Regulation a Blockade on Forest Rights Act Implementation in Himachal: Himdhara

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Supreme Court On Forest Diversion in Himachal Pradesh 2

ShimlaHimdhara 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.  

 

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Himachal: Report Forest Fires on Toll-Free Numbers 1077 and 1070

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helpline for Forest Fires in himachal pradesh

Shimla-Forest fire is a recurrent annual phenomenon in Himachal Pradesh and causes losses worth several crores every year. Dry spell and summers make forests, especially chir pine forests, highly vulnerable to forest fires. These forest fires not only damage the forest wealth but also hit wildlife and biodiversity in general. The forest department attributes most fires to human factors.

Like every year, the forest department has claimed that it is all geared up and ready to combat forest fires this year too. Principal Chief Conservator of Forests Dr. Savita on Monday held a virtual review meeting with Forest Circles on preparedness for forest fires in the state.

She said that the Forest department was well prepared to fight the forest fires and a rapid forest fire fighting force and rapid response teams had been set up at forest division and range levels.

“Approximately 40,000 man-days of fire watchers would be engaged by the department in addition to existing frontline staff for preventing and combating forest fires,” she said. The state disaster control room with toll-free number 1077 at the state level and 1070 at the district level were operational for reporting of the forest fire by the local community, she informed.

Dr. Savita said messages regarding forest fire had been shared with the members of the rapid forest fire fighting force, in which approximately 50,000 volunteers had already been registered. Awareness to the community was also conducted through Nukkar Nataks, songs, speeches and other activities at different locations in the state. Besides, a massive state-level awareness program was also conducted at 45 places from 10 to 17 March 2021

She said that the department had created forest fire lines and did control burning and also constructed water storage structures in the forest areas to combat forest fires. Additional multi-utility vehicles and water loaded tankers in 80 fire-sensitive ranges had been engaged for three months. She that matter regarding Standard Operating Systems (SOPs) for requisition of helicopter services for dousing the forest fires had been sent to the Government for approval. 

Feature Photo: Unsplash@Thematthoward

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Himachal Counts 108,578 Waterbirds of 96 Species This Year With Increase in Habitat

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Annual Bird Count in Himachal Pradesh 2021

Shimla-The habitat of migratory and resident water-birds in Himachal Pradesh has gradually improved, said Forest Minister Rakesh Pathania.

The annual water-bird count at Pong Dam Lake Wildlife Sanctuary was conducted in the first of February, 2021 and the exercise was conducted under restrained conditions due to the prevailing Avian Influenza outbreak in Pong Dam Lake as well as the COVID-19 Pandemic, he said.

The exercise was conducted by Wildlife wing of Himachal Pradesh by deploying 57 staff members in 26 sections of the sanctuary for counting the water-dependent birds.

Total 108,578 birds of 96 species were counted during this year. Out of the total number, 101,431 of 51 species are water-dependent migratory birds and 6,433 of 29 species are water-dependent resident birds. As many as 714 birds of 16 other species were also recorded. The total population of the flagship species, Bar-Headed Geese, is 40,570.

The other species which have higher population count during this year are Eurasian Coot (24,163), Northern Pintail (12,702), Common Teal (8,444), Little Cormorant (3,649), Great Cormorant (3,410), Grey Lag Goose (2,297), Northern Shoveler (2,275) and Common Pochard (2,138). The species which find noticeable mention are Red Necked Grebe, Great Bittern, Lesser White-Fronted Goose, Red Crested Pochard, Ferruginous Pochard, Pied Avocet, Northern Lapwing, Peregrine Falcon etc. During the counting exercise, one Bar-headed Goose and one Grey Lag Goose with collars were also spotted.

This year the Annual bird count exercise assumes significance, considering the Avian Influenza outbreak in the Wildlife Sanctuary. Further, the Minister expressed satisfaction over the timely and effective containment measures taken by Wildlife Wing to control and contain Avian Influenza outbreak in the Wildlife Sanctuary.

PCCF (Wildlife) Archana Sharma and CCF Wildlife (North) Dharamshala Upasana Patial also participated and supervised the Annual Water Bird Count.

The total population of birds, as well as number of species, counted this year are marginally less as compared to last year, probably due to the impact of Avian Influenza outbreak which was first reported on 28th December 2020.

Although the total population of water birds declined during the peak of the Avian Influenza outbreak, there is a gradual increase in the total population of birds, the Minister informed.

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Himachal First State to Complete Assessment of Snow Leopard and its Wild Prey

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Snow Leopard Population Assessment in Himachal Pradesh

Shimla-The assessment of snow leopard population in Himachal Pradesh has been completed by the state wildlife wing in collaboration with Nature Conservation Foundation (NCF) Bangalore following the protocol aligning with the SPAI (Snow Leopard Population Assessment in India) protocols of the Ministry of Environment, Forests and Climate Change. Himachal Pradesh has become the first state to complete assessment of snow leopard and its wild prey.

The state has an estimated population of up to 73 snow leopards.

It is the first scientifically robust estimate of snow leopards and its prey for the State. Since snow leopard is the state animal, the study assumes great significance for Himachal Pradesh.
The exercise revealed that snow leopard density ranged from 0.08 to 0.37 individuals per 100 sq.km., with the trans-Himalayan regions of Spiti, Pin valley and upper Kinnaur recording the highest densities, both of the predator and its prey, mainly ibex and blue sheep.

This study covered the entire potential snow leopard habitat of Himachal Pradesh: an area of 26,112 sq.km., utilising a stratified sampling design. Camera trapping surveys were conducted at 10 sites to representatively sample all the strata i.e. high, low and unknown. The camera trap deployment over the mountainous terrains was led by a team of eight local youth of Kibber village and more than 70 frontline staff of HPFD were trained in this technique as part of the project. Snow leopards were detected at all the 10 sites (Bhaga, Chandra, Bharmour, Kullu, Miyar, Pin, Baspa, Tabo, Hangrang & Spiti) suggesting that snow leopards are found in the entire snow leopard habitat in Himachal Pradesh either as resident individuals of a population or as dispersing individuals navigating through these connecting habitats.

Another revelation from the study is that a bulk of snow leopard occurrence is outside protected areas, reiterating the fact that local communities are the strongest allies for conservation in snow leopard landscapes.

The NCF and wildlife wing collaborated in the effort and it took three years to complete the assessment. MoEFCC had launched the First National Protocol on Snow Leopard Population Assessment in India, on the occasion of International Snow Leopard Day. You can read the complete protocol here.

Snow leopard is the icon of high mountains of Asia. In India, they inhabit the higher Himalayan and TransHimalayan landscape in an altitudinal range between approximately 3,000 m to 5,400 m above MSL, spanning c. 100,000 km2 in the five states of Jammu and Kashmir, Himachal Pradesh, Uttarakhand, Sikkim and Arunachal Pradesh. This area contributes to about 5% of the global snow leopard range.

Snow leopards occur over a vast, relatively remote and difficult to access mountainous area. Together with their elusive nature, this makes a complete population census of snow leopards an unfeasible goal. Even their distribution remains unclear. For example, recent surveys show that they do not occur in 25 % of the area that was thought to be their range in the state of Himachal Pradesh Their density is expected to be variable in space, dependent on several factors such as habitat suitability, prey availability, disturbance and connectivity. Variation in density across space also poses the risk of biased sampling, and, indeed, most of the snow leopard population assessments conducted so far across the world are biased towards the best habitats.

Feature Photo: Pexels/Charles Miller

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