Environment vs Development: Cost-benefit audit to get stricter
New Delhi: With development projects taking a toll on the country's green cover, the environment ministry is tightening the audit process that would evaluate environmental losses against economic gains likely to be caused before transferring forest land for projects, industrial or infrastructural.
The ministry has asked the Bhopal-based Indian Institute of Forest Management (IIFM) to submit a draft of cost-benefit analysis guidelines by July. The revised guidelines are expected to be more exhaustive compared to the present criteria under the Forest Conservation Act, 1980.
H.C. Chaudhary, assistant inspector general of forests in the environment ministry, has asked IIFM to provide clear instructions on the various cost and benefit elements to be incorporated to arrive at a cost-benefit ratio.
"We want to make the process of evaluating forests more exhaustive so that before according clearance for diverting the forest land for developmental work, we know the ratio of environmental losses it will cause when compared to economic gains," said an environment ministry official.
At the moment, while seeking the central government's approval of a proposal for a particular commercial/development project in a forest, the user agency must send a cost-benefit analysis along with the other requirements. The cost-benefit analysis is applicable only to projects on more than 20 hectares in the plains and more than five hectares in hilly regions.
The process of framing exhaustive guidelines was initiated following orders of the National Green Tribunal (NGT) - a dedicated green bench for expeditious disposal of environment-related cases. According to the NGT, there is need for better procedures in making sound evaluation of the forest land diversion proposals.
The parameters on which cost-benefit analysis is decided include loss of value of timber, fuel wood and minor forest produce on an annual basis, including loss of man hours per annum of people who derived livelihood and wages from the harvest of these commodities among others.
The cost-benefit analysis also holds importance as according to the India State of Forest Report, 2011, released by the Forest Survey of India (FSI), India has lost 367 sq km of forest cover in the past two years, owing to various reasons.
India's forest cover is now at 692,027 sq km, or 21.05 per cent of the country's geographical area.
Forest rights' activists, however, are skeptical about the issue, saying any new guidelines should fix the accountability of a project's proponent.
"The whole issue is of fixing accountability. As of now, there is no process to cross-check what a project's proponent submits as part of its cost-benefit analysis, so I hope this issue is addressed," Shankar Gopalakrishnan of the Campaign for Survival and Dignity, an organisation working for the forest rights of indigenous people, told IANS.
"With no land left in the cities, the focus is now on forests. This is leading to more and more trees being felled for setting up industries and other projects. With the growing population, more pressure is expected to come on forests," Gopalakrishnan added.