Root of the Problem
By Dr Swati Jindal Garg
Nature has the capacity to rejuvenate itself provided humans don’t interfere in this process. The compensatory afforestation scheme being undertaken by some states is just a way to assuage guilt for wrongdoings.
Legally speaking, compensatory afforestation is defined as the process of afforestation and associated regeneration activities that are done to compensate for destroyed forest land that has been diverted for non-forest activities. The purpose of such afforestation is to ensure that the forest is still put into good use. This concept, however, is now being used by authorities to surreptitiously claim forest land for certain purposes that are outside the purview of forest afforestation.
The latest such case is a suggestion by Northern Railways which applied for forest clearance for a railway terminal in Delhi, but proposed to carry out compensatory afforestation in UP. The application has not yet been approved and a senior official of the forest department reportedly said that it has been returned to the Northern Railways due to some shortcomings.
The application was submitted in February and was for the purpose of getting clearance for the new Bijwasan terminal of the Northern Railways. According to documents submitted for clearance, a separate passenger and goods handling facility was proposed at Bijwasan to cope with “future traffic needs and decongest existing ones” for which the DDA had “earmarked approximately 110 hectares at Bijwasan”. Around 6.768 hectares of forest land in southwest Delhi is proposed for the terminal.
In order to compensate for the forest land that will be diverted for the terminal, the Railways has proposed to carry out compensatory afforestation on multiple patches of land in Uttar Pradesh. The afforestation land maps that have been submitted for this scheme are for patches situated in Muzaffarnagar and Baghpat. A senior official of the forest department reportedly said that compensatory afforestation land identified in Uttar Pradesh is in seven patches and totals around 6.84 hectares as against the 6.768 hectares of forest land that will be taken in southwest Delhi.
The larger question is whether Delhi, which is often shrouded in pollution leading to wheezing and coughing of its residents, can afford the felling of more trees, let alone a forest cover of more than six hectares. Furthermore, will the compensatory afforestation, if at all done, be of any help to the people in Delhi as the proposed site is miles away from the capital? Most of all, can an area of approx seven hectares of fully grown trees be replaced? However, an official of the Railways reportedly said that compensatory afforestation land was identified in Uttar Pradesh as they could not find land for it in Delhi. “The DDA does not have land to give (for compensatory afforestation). So, we have applied and asked them to consider land in Uttar Pradesh. It has not been considered yet,” the official said.
The DDA had also requested the Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change to allow compensatory afforestation over degraded forest land in neighbouring states of Delhi for projects of the central government/PSUs in Delhi, citing scarcity of land in the capital. The Forest Advisory Committee that had examined this matter last year had decided to consider the proposal on a “case to case basis” instead of passing guidelines as a whole.
The DDA then wrote to the Northern Railways regarding the non-availability of land for compensatory afforestation with regard to a proposal for a third and fourth line between Tilak Bridge and Anand Vihar saying: “We regret to inform you that your request to facilitate 24.887 Hectare DDA land cannot be processed, as no land is available for Compensatory Afforestation with DDA.”
This issue has also cropped up in other states. Compensatory compensation has been taken up in a big way in Rajasthan in areas used for non-forestry purposes. New guidelines have been evolved for utilisation of funds of the Compensatory Afforestation Fund Management & Planning Authority and the state’s forest policy has set a target of bringing a minimum of 6% of area under forest cover.
In another case where the implementation of development projects in Andaman and Nicobar was being hindered by the non-availability of land for afforestation as 92% of its area is already covered in forests, it was decided that carbon sinks for development projects there would be created over 2,000 km away in Madhya Pradesh with the help of the forest department and government officials in the state. Madhya Pradesh has about 1,000 degraded forest sites in over 40,000 hectares of land, where compensatory afforestation on behalf of Andaman and Nicobar Islands will take place. For this, the Andaman and Nicobar Island administration will provide Rs 1,480 crore to the Madhya Pradesh government.
In the end, one state’s loss seems to be another’s gain.
—The writer is an Advocate-on-Record practising in the Supreme Court, Delhi High Court and all district courts and tribunals in Delhi
In an environment issue, residents of Delhi’s posh Vasant Vihar area raised their voices against the reckless pruning of trees in their locality (right). Led by Dr Sanjeev Bagai, a Padma Shree awardee, the residents approached the National Green Tribunal (NGT) over the excessive pruning, alleging that the managing committee of the Vasant Vihar Management Association had hired private contractors, including some former MCD employees, for the pruning and had spent a whooping Rs five lakh for it.
Stating that the Association had no authority over pruning or felling of trees, the residents contended that such work can only be done by the forest department, DDA or MCD. Taking cognizance of the matter, the NGT had on December 21, 2022 issued an interim order categorically permitting pruning to be undertaken by the MCD and other relevant land-owning agencies.
This was put on hold by a single judge bench of Justice Najmi Waziri of the Delhi High Court in a plea moved by Bagai. The High Court observed that a detailed assessment of the “activity done by the RWA needs to be carried out” and further pruning has to be “stopped right-away”. Justice Waziri appointed advocate Aditya N Prasad, who was present in the Court at that time, as amicus curiae to assess the situation at the site and assist the Court. Directing the MCD and the tree officer to file extensive photographs as well as a report, the bench said: “Let the learned amicus curiae be assisted at the site by the tree officer, deputy director (horticulture) South Zone, SHO-Vasant Vihar, deputy director (horticulture), PWD, executive engineer, PWD, deputy director (horticulture), MCD of the area concerned, deputy director (horticulture) DDA along with the petitioners and/or their representatives.”
The petitioners had also argued that “approximately 800 trees” had been pruned in the colony and it was almost impossible for the tree officer to have inspected all of them or to have ensured that only trees with branches of less than “15.7 cms” in circumference had been cut (as per rules). “There were no tools or equipment for the tree officer to have so measured or ensured,” the order records.
Relying on the Delhi Preservation of Trees Act, the petitioners also contended that as per the Act, any “woody plant” which has a height of 30 cm and a trunk diameter of not less than 5 cm is considered a tree and has to be protected under the Act. Hence, the entire process adopted for pruning trees was “illegal” in the light of the fact that once a “woody plant” gets classified as a tree, any alteration to its body will have to be in terms of the procedure prescribed under the Act.
Noting that the genesis of the NGT order was the desire of the RWA Vasant Vihar to prune certain trees in the colony, the High Court observed: “They made representations to the Municipal Corporation of Delhi and the tree officer, but nothing worthwhile came forth, so they approached the NGT.” The High Court finally held: “The pruning would take place only with the strict permission of the tree officer and not on general guidelines.”
When it comes to the environment, courts have often been quite strict and don’t take the laxity of authorities lightly.