Down to Earth
CALL IT reconciliation or compromise, but the Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change (MOEFCC) has legitimised one of the biggest forestland encroachments in the recent past. On December 17, 2019, the ministry regularised and gave in-principle forest clearance to 174 hectares (ha) of forestland encroached upon for the past 12 years by Vedanta-owned Electrosteel Steels Limited (ESL) in Jharkhand’s Bokaro district.
Over the years, the company constructed a steel-manufacturing plant on the site, which is fully functional now.
ESL had applied for Environmental Clearance for the project in 200607. MOEFCC gave its consent, too. But the company provided incorrect information. ESL claimed that the project site was near Parbatpur village in Bokaro, but it has built the plant at Baghabandh village, about 5 km from Parbatpur, reveals the site inspection report of May 22, 2017 prepared by the divisional forest officer (DFO). Worse, the declared site did not have any forestland, but the actual construction site had fertile forestland.
ESL had ulterior motives in encroaching or public land, notified protected forestlands, and land recorded by the government as the report states. By regularising their illegal acts, “the company and its officers are trying to place misleading
facts even before the honourable court,” it adds.
Between 2009 and 2016, a total of 53 cases were filed against ESL employees. The state forest department also filed a case against ESL on November 20, 2010 to initiate proceedings under the Jharkhand Public Land Encroachment Act. These cases are presently with the Chief Judicial Magistrate, Bokaro. On August 29, 2018, the court dismissed the forest department’s case stating there were still several pending cases filed by forest-dwellers for land ownership. While ESL claimed that it had purchased land from private individuals, the forest department has maintained that the land is notified forestland.
In 2018, MOEFCC revoked the Environmental Clearance to the project. The Jharkhand Pollution Control Board also withdrew its Consent to Operate. However, ESL moved the Jharkhand High Court and managed to get a stay on both.
While several cases were still pending, ESL levelled 164 ha of forestland and constructed the plant. And the DFO’s site inspection report, which had strongly condemned ESL’s action, finally proposed to regularise the project. The forest is already destroyed and the project itself gives employment to about 10,000 people, it states. It also proposes “exemplary penalty” to the company. MOEFCC has accepted the proposal.
Monetary penalty can hardly be a sound basis for condoning blatant violations. It will open an easy exit route for companies with deep pockets when the rights of forestdwellers have been trampled upon. According to the Ministry of Tribal Affairs, till September 2019, of the total 1,10,756 claims filed under the Forest Rights Act, Jharkhand has approved only 62,051 claims. And the average size of the Individual Forest Rights recognised is as small as 1.03 ha.
Past records show similar ex-post regularisations with exemplary penalty. Kanchi Kohli, a researcher at Delhi-based think tank Centre for Policy Research, says, there are penal provisions in national- and state-level forest laws that can be invoked for cases involving construction without approval, encroachment and illegal felling of trees. “The Shah Commission inquiry on illegal mining in Odisha and Goa found many projects were working without proper forest or environment clearances. Such projects have been regularised or allowed to operate after payment of penalties,” she says.
In fact, MOEFCC has already formalised the process of providing ex-post environmental clearance. In a March 14, 2017 notification it has given the provision for ex-post clearance to projects that have violated the Environment Impact Assessment (EIA) Notification, 2006. A draft EIA notification, 2020 released by
MOEFCC on March 11, aims to further strengthen the ex-post clearance process.
“EIA Notification, 2006 lays down the requirement for environment clearance prior to the project, but the new draft includes a section on violations which undermines this very requirement,” says Kohli. “It signals that noncompliance with the regulation can be condoned,” she adds.
This also holds true for forest clearance, a precursor to environmental clearance. At a ministry’s meeting held on October 26, 2017, it was decided that forestland diversions without forest clearance will attract a penalty that is five times the Net Present Value of the forestland.
“This is worrisome as forest clearances are anyways given without due diligence,” says Sharadchandra Lele, distinguished fellow at Ashoka Trust for Research in Ecology and the Environment. He is studying the process of granting forest clearance to 130 large mining projects in the country. “Collectors have admitted that FRA process is completed without ensuring grant of Community Forest Rights to people. So on one hand, clearances are not granted carefully and on the other, those who violate even that process are now being given
clearance,” he adds.
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