The Forest Act of 1927 and Forest Conservation Act of 1980 offer a good example of how good intentions can sometimes lead to unintended adverse outcomes. Under the 1927 Act, the erstwhile Punjab state (which was split into the current states of Punjab and Haryana in 1966) has had a history of declaring the avenue plantations on either side of the roads, canals and Railways as Protected Forest going as far back as 1958. The Revenue Department of the then Punjab Government made the decision and transferred the strips of plantations to Forest Department for management. However, the Executive Engineer in-charge of the Railways, Roads or Canals as the case may be was authorized to permit the breaking up of land to remove earth in times of emergency. This provision allowed a balance between the objective of protection of trees for better ecology and the use of land by the concerned authority in case of emergency.
But after the enactment of Forest Conservation Act, 1980, areas that had been declared as Protected Forest came under the provisions of this Act for purposes other than Forestry purpose. After the emergence of Haryana on 1st November, 1966, all such areas in the jurisdiction of the new state came under the control of its Government. The practice of declaring the avenue plantations as protected forest continued till late 1980s in Haryana and middle of the 1990s in Punjab. According to available information, there being great scarcity of forests in the states, their governments wanted to protect the trees and found it convenient to declare the strips of trees as Protected Forest. The Forest Departments of the two States forwarded the proposals to their respective State Governments without taking the consent of the departments in control of such lands. No one realized that one day this will turn into a major impediment to widening of roads necessary to accommodate significantly increased traffic on roads and railways.
As roads become congested, citizens are turning restless in the absence of rapid widening of roads. The consequent slowing down of traffic not only impeds development, it also results in greater consumption of diesel, petrol and other resources and hence pollution. Under the Forest Conversation Act of 1980, if the land owning agency wishes to widen the road, it must follow an elaborate procedure including payments of large sums of money as Net Present Value (NPV) to Forest Department for diverting the forest land for non-forest use to compensate the forest’s lost ecosystem services till the afforested area starts providing comparable benefits. It leads to not just higher costs but also undue delays in the implementation of the project.
Some States such as Andhra Pradesh and Telangana have abstained from the practice of declaring the avenue plantations on road sides and Railway lines as Protected Forest. Hence they have not faced the problems associated with widening of linear projects of roads and railways that afflict states such as Punjab and Haryana. Widening roads and railway lines in these states only requires the relevant agencies to get permission for felling the trees, a task that is far less onerous.
In view of the experience of Andhra Pradesh and Telangana, the ideal solution to the problem elsewhere would be to free up linear projects from the legal status of Protected Forest. But this would require legislative change. As an interim solution, the Ministry of Environment, Forests and Climate Change, Government of India in its notification of 10th October, 2014 has delegated the powers to Regional Empowered Committees at each of its Regional office to consider all proposals related to linear projects. This is a welcome step towards expediting the process of clearances. The question remains, however, whether the projects aimed at widening roads and railways can be exempted from paying the large sums of money as NPV since the widening of roads and railways constitute public goods and land does not belong to Forest Department. Instead, recognizing that raising of trees on both sides of linear road and railway projects is important for ecology, 1 to 2% of the project cost can be reserved for this activity. This will be a win-win solution for ecology as well as the promotion of economic development.
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