Six weeks before the Ministry of Environment, Forests and Climate Change released a Consultation Paper with several proposals to amendment in the Forest (Conservation) Act, 1980, it had sent a letter to Principal Secretaries, Forests of all states and Union Territories with a subject line: "Considering linear projects linked to mining projects as standalone projects- regarding."
"Supplementary linear projects linked to mining that are conceived after the start of the original mining, should be considered as a standalone linear project and decisions on according approval for those shall be made at the Regional Empowered Committee/ Integrated Regional Office concerned as per provisions provided in the Forest (Conservation) Rules, 2003," the letter of August 23, 2021 said.
It also put in certain conditions to prevent misuse of the provision.
Eight months before that - in December 2020 - the Ministry had decided to allow coal mining on non-forest lands of a mining area by obtaining preliminary clearance (called State I Forest Clearance) under the Act. Under the FCA, non-forest activities such as mining had to obtain forest clearance in two stages.
Cut to October 2021 when on October 2, the Ministry issued the Consultation Paper - put out in public domain on October 4 - and among the several proposals for amendment is the one that relates to mining in forest areas.
"New technologies are coming up such as Extended Reach Drilling (ERD), which enables exploration or extraction of oil and natural gas deep beneath the forest land but making drilling holes from outside the forest areas and without impacting the soil or aquifer that supports the forest in the forest land. Ministry considers use of such technology is quite environment-friendly and as such should be kept outside the purview of Act," read one of the proposed amendments.
This has not gone well with activists.
"The fact that the Ministry is certifying drilling machines shows its willingness, the recklessness with which this government cares two hoots for forests," said Bengaluru's Environment Support Group, an advocacy NGO that also files petitions against environmental and forest laws' violations, coordinator Leo Saldanha.
As at now, no one has any idea of how this ERD will impact the geology in that area.
"The government's claim that this technology of drilling holes from outside the forest areas without impacting the soil or aquifer that supports the forest in the forest land is suspect... it is not supported by any scientific evidence," said think tank Centre for Financial Accountability researcher Dhwani Shah.
Shah said she has travelled in Jharkhand and seen the large scale devastation caused by machines used for boring in mining. "These are huge machines called diamond drilling machines. These cannot be airlifted and need to cut massive jungles for taking it by road to the site," she said.
"There is no clarity about how exactly this ERD will save forest areas."
But the confusion is not restricted to such procedural issues. The Consultation Paper spent a good 321 words on how sub section 2 (II) and 2 (III) of the FCA together have been creating confusion in many respects and therefore, "proposed to delete the sub-section 2 (III) of the Act and clarify that sub-section 2 (II) can be invoked for any kind of lease assignment having an intention of using for non-forestry purpose".
Given the context of the August letter and the December 2020 developments mentioned above, pieces fall in place and the picture does not at all relate to conservation of forests but of chipping it away, one piece at a time.
The Consultation Paper does not have a single word about tribal rights, considered as a lapse by experts, as majority of minerals are mined from dense forest areas coinciding with tribal habitats.
Saldanha said scores of honest forest officers from the state governments are "shocked" to say the least after reading the proposed changes. "The forest officers from BJP-ruled states are highly unlikely to talk about it. I am hoping, those from the non-BJP ruled states will speak up. Even the government of Tamil Nadu should speak out," he said.
But it did not stop at that.
The Consultation Paper further said, the clause of explanation to 'non-forestry use' in Section 2 of the Act, identifies activities which are to be regarded as non-forestry activity and which are not for the purpose of that Section. "It is understood that activities which are ancillary to conservation of forests and wildlife should not be considered as non-forestry activities. Accordingly, it has been proposed that, establishment of zoos, safaris, Forest Training infrastructures etc should not come within the meaning of 'non-forestry activity' for the purpose of Section 2(ii) of the Act," it said.
Running of zoos and safaris without relevant scrutiny, as was done till now, would clearly mean there is no check on the number of people allowed in the pristine forest area and most important, no tab on environmental management of the site.
"Forest training infrastructure can be debatable, depending on the size of the building proposed. A single building in some forest division may not attract much problem but an almost resort-like raining centre in the middle of lush jungle certainly can," said a forest official, who did not wish to be identified as he is still in the service.
On Sunday, one of the foresters re-tweeted a poem posted by a nature enthusiast. The concluding lines of the poem from 2004 by Ruskin Bond couldn't have described the importance of foresters any better.
"Dear Foresters,/You have not toiled for fame or favour,/Your's has been a love of labour/Our thanks! Instead of desert sand/You've given us this green and growing land."
Wonder what would the poet write today?
(With inputs from IANS)