Through this year, Rangamatia, a Juang village located in a remote, mountainous part of Keonjhar, north Odisha, has been clashing with the district forest bureaucracy. Dense, deciduous, community-conserved forests form part of the village. Bang in the middle of such forested land stands a board, installed in recent months by forest department officials. Towered over by sal trees, amid dense vegetation, it states in English:
Site for Compensatory Afforestation in Village Rangamatia…over an area of 369.24 hectares for Khondbond Iron & Manganese Mines of M/S Tata Steel Ltd.
One morning, last week, as we walked around this forest with the villagers, an agitated resident Deba Juang asked rhetorically, “See the density of our jungle? Will the forest department plant new trees under so many existing trees?” Concrete pillars marked ‘Tata’ run through the village, including on lands of which villagers hold titles. Residents uprooted these in anger last month, worried, as one of the title holders Trinath Juang said, about “how will we live if our lands and forest are usurped?”
The marginalised Juang village is in the process of applying for a title for its community forest, under the Forest Rights Act (FRA). As a Particularly Vulnerable Tribal Group, Juangs are also eligible for special habitat rights under FRA. Despite this, foresters have unilaterally marked off their lands for multiple compensatory afforestation projects.
Barely-noticed conflicts unfolding in villages like Rangamatia illustrate the ongoing tragedy in the forested tracts of India: rural communities are not only impacted and displaced by large-scale mining, infrastructure and investment projects, their lands also get acquired for ‘afforestation’ to ‘compensate’ for ‘diverted’ forests. Compounding this is the ecological farce of the state trying to compensate for the destruction of natural forests by plantations, sometimes by the further felling of dense forests, as might happen in Rangamatia. The sidelining of and complete lack of accountability towards local Adivasi and forest-dwelling communities, the quiet takeover of lands and resources they depend on and steward, and the absurdity of carrying out “afforestation” plantations over extant forests, reflects the deeper democratic disconnect underlying the alienation of such communities, and the high levels of corruption they encounter.
A wilful blindness to these ground realities is perhaps the greatest failing of the Compensatory Afforestation Management & Planning Authority Bill, or CAMPA. This far-reaching legislation-in-the-making, was passed by the Lok Sabha in May. Late on the night of July 21, it was scheduled by the Rajya Sabha to be taken up and “disposed off” on Monday, July 25.
What the CAMPA Bill says
The Bill proposes to establish authorities, at the national and state level to spend the vast amount of funds (Rs 40,000 crore and rising), accumulated as compensation against ongoing forest diversion. This is money accumulated over the years, based on the net present value of the diverted forest and the cost of afforestation. Such payments range from Rs 5,00,000-11,00,000 lakh per hectare, depending on the type and condition of forest, as determined by forest officials.
Under the Bill, the CAMPA authorities are dominated by the forest bureaucracy, who will just about unilaterally decide how this multi-crore outlay will be spent, and administer it. (As a token gesture, the Bill provides for one “tribal expert” or tribal representative on feature on the authority.)
In its centralising impulse, the Bill completely ignores, even directly clashes, with the landmark FRA, which vests rights of forest management over more than half of India’s forests in tribal and forest-dwelling communities. The Bill also goes against the principles of democratic devolution, laid down in the 73rd and 74th constitutional amendments, and the Modi government’s stated mantra of ‘minimum government’.
The current official-centric nature of the CAMPA Bill is likely to cause the following impacts. Firstly, a great wastage of resources, since left to themselves, the environment and forest regulatory and executive structures possess neither the capacity, nor the knowledge base to administer CAMPA effectively, as detailed by a 2013 CAG report.
Secondly, further resource inequity, since the Bill ignores the recommendations of the Kanchan Chopra Committee and the Indian Institute of Forest Management Committee on net present value of forests, which stipulate sharing part of the compensation with forest-dependent communities. That the fund has grown from Rs 1200 crore to about Rs 40,000 crore in the past decade is a measure of the scale of forest destruction underway in the country. It is also a grim indicator of whose resource base is getting destroyed in this process, with little or no compensation.
Third, it ensures that grassroots conflicts persist, as forest departments will use the vast additional resources at their command to stymie the FRA, and the spaces it creates for empowerment and participation for rural citizens. Contrast this with say China, where over 100 million hectares of forests have been handed over to communities and households and the Chinese government has invested over $50 billion through payments to incentivise farmers and communities to conserve forests.
Fourth, it will lead to ecologically counter-productive outcomes as perverse incentives are created for the bureaucracy to spend money on afforestation, by cutting natural forests or creating ghost plantations. The environment ministry has itself noted instances, some times as large as over 1000 hectares, where “land identified for compensatory afforestation” by local forest officials is found, when checked, to be already “having very dense forest vegetation.”
Rangmatia illustrates all the above problems. A splendid natural forest is proposed to be replaced by a compensatory afforestation plantation, some of the country’s most marginalised citizens are battling the alienation of their traditionally-held resources and their mandated rights, state-community conflict is being perpetuated and there is a wilful wastage of public resources.
In May, in a detailed note to the tribal affairs and environment ministers Jual Oram and Prakash Javdekar, Congress Rajya Sabha MP and former environment minister Jairam Ramesh wrote that the CAMPA Bill must be amended and made compliant with the FRA to ensure “it does not result in the wholescale and gross violation of forest dwellers rights.”
Recent news reports suggest that the Congress, whose support the government needs to pass the Bill through the Rajya Sabha, is backing down from this insistence. This is reportedly on the ground that concerns about CAMPA usurping the rights of communities will be addressed in the rules that are subsequently framed by central and state governments for this new law.
But as Ramesh’s note itself argued, rules constitute operational details, not policy provisions. Without such provisions in the body of the law, rules by themselves cannot state under what conditions CAMPA money should not be spent, for instance, without the consent of the gram sabha of say, villages like Rangamatia, on whose land forest departments plan ‘afforestation’.
Unless amended by the Rajya Sabha on Monday, the law will freeze the control of vast CAMPA funds in an institutional structure dominated by the bureaucracy, with little democratisation or accountability, and with ominous consequences for the hard-won rights of forest-dwelling and tribal citizens.
All this, while a growing body of evidence shows that local communities are more efficient and effective at protecting landscapes, vis-a-vis centralised bureaucracies, and that secure rights lead to better stewardship of lands and forests, and efforts at combating climate change.
Chitrangada Choudhury is an Odisha-based multimedia journalist and researcher, and Neera Singh is an Assistant Professor with the Department of Geography and Planning at the University of Toronto.