Private plantation scheme shot down by SC panel back on Govt table

Jay Mazoomdaar
private plantations, Environment ministry, private plantations scheme Supreme Court, Green Credit Scheme, indian express

On July 17, 2014, responding to a query from Rajya Sabha member Dilipbhai Pandya, Environment Minister Prakash Javadekar confirmed that the Centre had received the proposal from Gujarat.

A proposal to allow private plantations on government land has been revived by the Ministry of Environment and Forests, five years after the Environment Minister told Rajya Sabha that the scheme would require approval of the Supreme Court. In fact, the apex court's Central Empowered Committee (CEC) had refused to even entertain the proposal.

Floated by the Gujarat government, the Green Credit Scheme proposed that private players be allowed to identify land near reserve forests and raise plantations to subsequently sell to developers looking to meet obligations of compensatory afforestation in lieu of forestland diverted for their projects. As an incentive, the proposal stated, the Ministry would give priority to project developers opting for the scheme.

On July 17, 2014, responding to a query from Rajya Sabha member Dilipbhai Pandya, Environment Minister Prakash Javadekar confirmed that the Centre had received the proposal from Gujarat. "The proposal has been examined in the Ministry and requires approval of the Hon'ble Supreme Court of India. The State Government of Gujarat has been advised to approach the Hon'ble Supreme Court of India for obtaining further directions," he said.

Gujarat never approached the Supreme Court on the matter. Dr Jaipal Singh, Gujarat's Additional Principal Chief Conservator (Land), said: "The CEC looked at the scheme and found the proposal untenable. There has not been any movement on the plan since."

A member of the CEC told The Indian Express that the proposal did not even merit a report to be examined by the apex court and was outrightly rejected. Officials in the Ministry and the state forest department, the member said, "had appreciated the concerns" raised by the CEC.

"We explained how the scheme could degenerate into a scam since the government would have no role in determining the prices at which these plantations would be sold. Since compensatory afforestation is compulsory for developers, including government agencies, this scheme could create a seller's market for profiteering," a former CEC member who dealt with the proposal said.

On December 19, 2019, the Ministry placed the revived proposal before its Forest Advisory Committee (FAC). Appreciating the idea, the FAC recommended that the Ministry may issue "specific guidelines" for the scheme.

Sanjay Kumar, Additional Director General (Forests) in the Ministry, did not respond to calls and an email seeking comment.

Under the Forest Conservation Act, 1980, whenever forestland is to be diverted for non-forestry purposes, equivalent non-forest land has to be identified and funds for raising compensatory afforestation are to be imposed on the project developer.

At present, developers identify land for compensatory afforestation and pay for afforestation undertaken by the forest department. In some states, the forest departments created a pool of civil land for the purpose. All land under compensatory afforestation are notified as reserve forest. In the absence of available civil land, afforestation is also undertaken on severely degraded forestland.

Under the proposed Green Credit Scheme, interested private agencies would identify land near reserve forests and submit a plan for raising plantations for the forest department's approval. When and if a plantation meets the desired standards, the agency concerned will be allowed to sell it, at a mutually negotiated price, to a project developer looking to meet compensatory afforestation obligations. The land then will be notified as reserve forest by the state government concerned.

If a private agency does not want to sell its plantation for some reason, the proposal says, it can "continue to retain the title of the plantation and finally take benefit in harvesting and reforesting the said piece of land".