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Forest officials pose danger to forests: Experts 

 


TIMES OF INDIA Nitin Sethi, TNN
September 19, 2011

NEW DELHI: Forest officials are fudging data, hiding facts, sidestepping laws, overlooking violations and finding ways of clearing even projects that are dangerous for forests, three non-official members on the statutory Forest Advisory Committee have told environment minister Jayanthi Natarajan.

In a scathing letter loaded with this explosive critique of the committee's functioning for the past some time, the three – Ullas Karanth, the world's foremost tiger expert; Amita Baviskar, associate professor at the Institute of Economic Growth; and Mahesh Rangarajan, director of Nehru Memorial Museum and Library - just stopped short of alleging corruption by the forest bureaucracy in the clearance process.

The FAC is the mandatory body under the Forest Conservation Act which recommends projects for using forestlands to the minister. Besides the three non-official members, the panel comprises some of the senior-most forest officers in the ministry, including the Director General of Forests.

The three have written, "From the bottom up, state forest departments/governments are routinely approving even obviously damaging projects. They have abdicated their role of due diligence, mandatory under the Forest Conservation Act, and honest expression, possibly under political or other pressure."

Natarajan confirmed receiving the letter and told TOI, "Yes, I have got the letter from the three non-official members. I am going to consider it seriously and will certainly make any course correction that is required."

TOI had earlier reported how in 20 months of Jairam Ramesh's more than two-year tenure, the environment ministry had cleared 1,446 projects requiring 31,501 hectares of forestland to be levelled - equal to half the size of Mumbai. Another 993 projects got 'in-principle' clearance to divert 35,391 hectares of land over the same period. Officials, in reply to an RTI query then, had said they did not even hold the mandatory documents required as precondition to clear the projects.

The three have now written that they have doubts whether their proposal to get the big projects verified on the ground for facts by empanelled experts was deliberately suppressed despite repeated assurances by the forest bureaucracy.

"We are being forced to take decisions on the basis of inadequate and inaccurate information. When we impose conditions, there is no guarantee that they will be enforced," they said.

In most cases, the fact sheet they get from officials on each case fails to provide a substantive basis for rational decision-making, they said.

"The only way of accurately evaluating a project is by using independent experts and this procedure needs to become routine in the functioning of the FAC," the three wrote.

They said the forest bureaucracy was not even providing all the information required under the law for them to take a decision.


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