Green Tribunal nixes Centre's tree-chopping circular

21 February 2015

The National Green Tribunal on Friday stayed a circular issued by the union environment ministry allowing government agencies undertaking 'linear' projects, such as highways, power lines, canals and railway lines, to begin cutting trees before getting a final forest clearance.

In August, the government appointed a committee headed by retired cabinet secretary TSR Subramanian to review environmental laws without seeking to amend the National Green Tribunal Act that set up the tribunal in 2010.

Nonetheless, the Subramanian committee recommended diluting the tribunal's powers.

The tribunal's order on Friday is the first judicial challenge to the Modi government's moves to weaken environmental safeguards.

Large projects need a forest clearance from the environment ministry as part of the final clearance. This is because while forest land belongs to states, the central government decides how large projects can use this land.

The union ministry of environment, forests and climate change, however, wants to do away with the forest clearance. It issued a circular in August that said states could allow bodies undertaking linear projects to fell trees after obtaining the first clearance from the ministry. It clarified in another circular in January which official in the state could issue the permission to cut trees.

Nagpur-based wildlife biologist Milind Pariwakam challenged the circulars in the National Green Tribunal, which has stayed both circulars and said that all tree-felling must be suspended till it passes a judgement on the case.

Under the Forest (Conservation) Act, a project needs to pass two stages of clearances before its undertaker can begin cutting trees. In the first stage, the government must deem the project is not harmful to the environment. In the second stage, the undertaker must identify non-forest land on which to plant saplings to replace the cut trees.

It must deposit the money needed for this with the state government. Once this is done, the centre can grant a final clearance.

The ministry's circular seeks to allow linear projects by state undertakings such as the National Highways Authority of India, the Border Roads Organisation, Indian Railways and the Central Public Works Department to bypass the second step.

Tribal rights groups had opposed the exemption for linear projects on the grounds that it violated their gram sabhas' right to grant consent, as stipulated in the Forest Rights Act.

The circular also in effect denies people the right to contest the government's decision before the National Green Tribunal because it can hear appeals only after a project has obtained a final clearance.

Pariwakam's lawyer argued that if felling starts before this, irrevocable damage might be done even before the verdict is delivered.

Even the National Board for Wildlife, headed nominally by the prime minister, acknowledged in 2011 that linear projects can do lasting damage to the ecosystem.

Activists opposed a plan to add a railway line through the Kanha-Pench corridor, one of the country's finest tiger reserves. National Highway 7 already runs through the area and there are plans to widen it.

If a railway line is added, it will be even more difficult for tigers to cross from one end to another which will lead to lower genetic diversity and inbreeding, and its consequent problems.

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