Centre's, and NITI Aayog's, Vision for 2022 Is Founded on Quiet Contradictions

A strategic document says India ought to increase forest cover while making it easier to threaten forests, and use funds collected for one purpose to do something else entirely.

In November 2018, the NITI Aayog released a document titled ‘Strategy for New India @ 75’. It outlined a vision to build a ‘New India’ by 2022 through policy proposals for furthering cauincluses like housing for all, doubling farmers’ incomes, renewable energy, sustainable environment, etc.

But look closer and you will notice that its various aims are not all consistent with each other.

For example, as part of policies to create a sustainable environment, the document says we need to increase forest cover to 33.3% of India’s geographical area as well as improve the quality of existing forests.

The nation’s forest cover currently stands at about 21%. Getting to 33% has been the goal since 1952, when the first national forest policy was drafted. However, it has only become harder since that time to meet this goal and the document itself shows why.

It also hopes that Parivesh – purported to be a single-window clearance system for environment, forests, wildlife and coastal regulation zones – will be able to grant permits within 180 days of application. This includes exploring for and mining minerals, authorising more officers than usual to grant powers to explore forest areas under the Forest (Conservation) Act 1980 and allowing deemed approvals in case of delays. A deemed approval is a greenlight granted without due process.

Fast-tracking mining clearances allows officials and miners to sidestep protections in the name of obviating delays. Empowering more officers to grant exploration rights inside forests is troubling for similar reasons, especially when India’s forest cover is already known to be fragile. The strategy document itself acknowledges that “of the total land area under forest cover, about 40% has only 10-40% canopy density”.

The other glaring misstep is that the document says Compensatory Afforestation Fund Management and Planning Authority (CAMPA) will be used for skill-development programmes aimed at “skilling/re-skilling/up-skilling existing and new entrants to the labour force”.

CAMPA was set up under the Compensatory Afforestation Fund (CAF) Act 2016, and can collect funds from any person, organisation, company or department of the Centre or states that intends to denotify or divert forest land for non-forest purposes. So CAMPA money is meant for afforestation drives, to makeup for activities that lead to deforestation.

The CAF Act also makes it clear that such funds can only be used for “compensatory afforestation, additional compensatory afforestation, penal compensatory afforestation, net present value, catchment area treatment plan or any money for compliance of conditions stipulated by the Central Government while according approval” under the Forest (Conservation) Act.

Therefore, using CAMPA funds for skill development programmes is bound to be illegal. The Supreme Court has, in the past, struck down the use of these funds to build roads and install streetlights. In 2013, the Comptroller and Auditor General also noted their diversion for purposes they are not intended for with concern. But in spite of such precedents, the NITI Aayog seeks to use CAMPA funds for training the workforce.

A ‘New India’ founded on such contradictions cannot also be stable and honest. It’s notable that Prime Minister Narendra Modi chaired the meeting of NITI Aayog members when they deliberated the development agenda for 2022, in June 2018. So it’s not simply a vision document as much as a sign of things to come vis-à-vis the Bharatiya Janata Party’s developmental agenda if it is in power then.

And it merits thorough consideration in an election year, when electioneers are and will be making promises that sound desirable on the face of it but mask potential conflicts.

Rishika Pardikar is a freelance journalist in Bengaluru.