Study Shows 1.2L Hectares of Forest Lost in the NDA Regime! Is Modi really a ‘Champion of the Earth?’

Written by SabrangIndia | Published on: April 30, 2019
According to the Global Forest Watch, an arm of the World Resources Institute (WRI), a US-based non-governmental organisation, 122,748 hectares (ha) of forest land have been lost under Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s regime between 2014 and 2018. This is nearly 36% more than the loss of forest and tree cover between 2009 and 2013. The maximum loss was reported in 2016 (30,936 ha) and 2017 (29,563 ha).

Image Courtesy: Deccan Herald

Indian forest and tree cover loss was 21,942 ha in 2014, which dropped to 20,997 ha next year before shooting up in 2016 and 2017. Subsequently there was a dip in 2018 when the forest loss figures stood at 19,310 ha.

The data has been collated by the University of Maryland that uses NASA satellite images to look into forest loss trends all over the world. Though the satellite images do not provide the cause of such a mammoth loss, various studies have blamed it on unprecedented mining activities, logging and shifting cultivation.

The forest cover loss has led to an increase of carbon dioxide in India’s atmosphere by 101-250% up to 2017, according to a different analysis by the WRI.

Paradoxically, in 2018, Modi, along with French President Emmanuel Macron, were selected as the ‘Champions of the Earth’- United Nations’ highest environmental honour for their pioneering work in championing the International Solar Alliance and promoting new areas of levels of cooperation on environmental action. Is our PM really worth this honour? The above data gives enough evidence to answer this question.

Throughout the NDA regime, Modi and his ministers have diluted laws without consultation from stakeholders, undermined institutions and tried everything in their power for the ‘ease of doing business.’ This has led to incessant exploitation of natural resources by the corporates. The forests, wildlife and coasts have been tremendously destroyed with the air pollution and waste scenario worsening.

The first indication of NDA’s dubious stand on the environmental concept was found in the 2014 election manifesto wherein ‘Environmental management’ found mention under the subject ‘Industry’ instead of ‘Flora, Fauna and Environment.’ The manifesto stated, “The emphasis on framing of environmental laws in a manner that encourages speedy clearances, removal of red tape and bottlenecks, is a sure indicator of diluted scrutiny of development projects at the time of clearance.”

In the first year of his coming to power, Modi constituted a high level committee led by former cabinet secretary TSR Subramanian to review and suggest amendments in the six main environmental laws of the country- Environment (Protection) Act, 1986; Forest (Conservation) Act, 1980; Wildlife (Protection) Act, 1972; Water (Prevention and Control of Pollution) Act, 1974; Air (Prevention and Control of Pollution) Act, 1981; and Indian Forest Act 1927. Due to intense opposition to the committee’s findings, the government never implemented them fully.

Various projects initiated in the past five years have proved to be environmentally and socially disastrous. Some of the projects include- the Sagarmala project, the Mumbai Coastal Road, Mumbai Metro-III, the Statue of Unity, the Char Dham road, Ahmedabad-Mumbai Bullet Train, expansion of Mumbai-Goa highway and the list goes on! To give a few glimpses of the environmental calamity that these projects will cause- it is estimated that around 40,000 trees will be cut for the 900 km Char Dham all-weather road, 44,000 trees for the expansion of Mumbai-Goa highway, another 8,300 for Mumbai-Pune expressway. Further, 77 ha of forest land in Maharashtra will be claimed for the Bullet Train project.

In March 2018, the Union Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change (MoEF&CC) proposed major changes to the draft National Forest Policy (NFP) 2018. that has been criticised for favouring corporate interests in the forestry sector. In the same year in April, the MoEF&CC made public the draft CRZ notification 2018. Critics say that the draft will open up India’s coasts to industries and help in aiding the government’s ambitious Sagarmala programme. Also, the Mumbai coastal road will take away the livelihood of the entire fishing communing leaving them to fend for themselves.

The Union Ministry of Tribal Affairs have expressed its concerns about the government’s policy that will affect tribals on a large scale. It has  pointed out that its authority as the nodal agency for the Forest Rights Act (2006), has been diluted by unilateral policy decisions and enactments proposed by the MoEF&CC without any consultation with it. Modi government has drawn ire from environmentalists for disempowering the National Green Tribunal (NGT), which was set up by the UPA-II in 2010 to adjudicate on environmental litigations. The Modi government was accused for misusing the provision of a "money bill” to make changes to the appointment system of judges to the NGT. However, the Supreme Court subsequently put a stay on the government’s amendment.

In short, according to an analysis by the Centre for Science and Environment, the last four years have seen:
  • Significant increase in allowing ‘development’ projects inside wildlife protected areas, bypassing necessary impact studies, from 260 in 2009-13 (under UPA) to 519 in 2014 – 18 (the BJP phase);
  • Proposed policy changes (e.g. a new Forest Policy, and Coastal Regulation Zone notification) that favour take-over of land, forest, water, coasts by corporate entities;
  • New projects that are mere greenwash, having no teeth or clarity, e.g. the National Clean Air Programme which has no specific targets for cities;
  • Attempts to weaken several crucial institutional structures, such as the National Green Tribunal (indications are that if BJP had its way, it would have shut the Tribunal down by now).

In contrast, the casualty in the UPA-2 regime between 2009 and 2013 was 77,963 ha, while 87,350 ha of tropical forest disappeared in 2004-08 when UPA-1 was in power. Cumulatively 3,10,625 ha of primary forest have been lost since 2002. The Congress is also to be blamed to some extent but the disaster in the BJP regime is unprecedented with millions of lives being affected!

India stands 177 (out of 180 countries) on the Environmental Performance Index, 2018. In 2016, India ranked 141. We also have the maximum number of environmental conflicts in the world, with the Environmental Justice Atlas (an international database) recording 271 cases in India in 2017. Moreover, in 2013, India had six out of the top 10 most polluted cities in the world. Today, we have 11 out of the top 12.

While the Congress’ manifesto talks a little bit about the measures for environmental protection, the BJP’s manifesto has no mention of India’s rich flora and fauna and the measures for conserving it.

The 2019 election results will decide the future of our ecology and of thousands of tribals and forest-dwellers!

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