New Delhi: Even as a debate rages on in Himachal Pradesh over Supreme Court’s March 2019 order banning fresh green felling, it has come to light that since 2014, felling of 83,320 trees has been approved for highway expansion in eight stretches under Forest Conservation Act, 1980. Of these, 33,000 trees have already been cut down.
In contrast, felling of 17,237 trees has been approved for village development across 1,959 activities under Forest Rights Act, 2006. The information has been obtained under the RTI Act by Himdhara, an environment research and action collective based in Himachal Pradesh.
In its report detailing the impact of the SC order, Himdhara said that the ban has impacted local village-level development activities that are cleared under FRA. Based on the RTI data, it said that tree felling cleared for development activities cleared under Section 3(2) was low compared to the felling cleared under FCA for bigger development activities such as road expansion, hydro-power projects and large transmission lines.
In March 2019, a bench headed by Justice Arun Mishra had ordered the ban based on the report of retired principal chief conservator of forest VP Mohan on silviculture felling in the hill state which is done for regeneration of forests.
The VP Mohan report had raised questions on diversions under the FRA. Later in April, the Supreme Court relaxed the order slightly and said it will monitor clearances under FRA and FCA. The bench had restrained the divisional forest officers in the state from allowing village development projects under Section 3(2) of the FRA.Under this section, the central government can divert forest land for village amenities such as schools, dispensaries, anganwadis, fair price shops, electric and telecommunication lines, tanks and other minor water bodies, drinking water supply, panchayat bhavan, community centres and non-conventional energy sources, among others.
It also empowers the Gram Sabhas to give consent to diversion of less than one hectares of forest land which involves felling of not more than 75 trees for the amenities mentioned above.
Forest Diversions Under FRA and FCA
The data obtained under RTI showed that felling of 17,237 trees was approved on an area of 887.56 hectares under Section 3(2) of the Forest Rights Act, 2006, for 1959 activities across 41 of Himachal’s 45 forest divisions.
The maximum diversions were for building village roads, followed by schools, community centres and health centres. Of the total land diverted, 91% were for roads and 91% of all tree-felling approved under FRA was for village roads.
Also, 64% of these diversions for 1,261 activities involved felling of zero trees, Himdhara’s report stated. It added that the average number of trees to be felled per hectare for activities other than road building was 19.52.
News18.com reviewed the RTI data obtained by Himdhara, but could not ascertain as to how many trees have already been cut for village development.
It is not a surprise that the maximum cases of tree felling under FRA are related to building of village roads. According to data of the state’s Public Works Department, across 12 districts, out of 17,449 states, 7083 villages are still unconnected by road as on March 31, 2019.
News18.com asked Ajay Kumar, principal chief conservator of forest, for a comment on the matter and he said, “The matter is sub-judice before the honourable Supreme Court of India and we have submitted our affidavit before them presenting all data with regards to this issue. I cannot comment anything more on this issue at this moment.”
As against under FRA, diversions and tree felling approved and already felled under FCA is on a much larger scale.
As per data provided by the National Highways Authority of India (NHAI) under RTI Act, since 2014, 83,320 trees were approved for felling for four-laning of Parwanoo to Shimla section of National Highway-22 and for expansion of Kiratpur to Nerchowk, Nerchowk to Pandoh, Pandoh to Takoli, Takoli to Kullu and Kullu to Manali. Out of 83,320 trees, 33,681 trees have already been felled for NH-22 expansion, the NHAI said under the RTI Act.
Over 12,500 trees were cut on forest land on the Parwanoo to Solan section alone and 12,010 trees were cut on Kaithlighat-Dhalli section.