The govt should enforce policies and regulations which limit the extent of forest land that can be legally converted for non-forest use.
Torrential rain and floods have caused devastation in Himachal Pradesh, Punjab, Haryana and Delhi. Natural disasters have become a frequent worldwide phenomenon in recent years. The governments and the people will think that ‘this too shall pass’ and ignore it. But nature won’t relent.
Author Charles Simmons said, “Sickness is the vengeance of nature for the violation of her laws.” The big question is: will governments learn lessons from such disasters and go for course correction? One can attribute the recent floods and landslides to policy failure. Himalayan states have become the hub of tourism, with a sharp rise in personal income and a flourishing demand for recreational activities.
The Central and state governments have vigorously promoted the tourism and hospitality sectors as part of macroeconomic policies to boost the service sector so as to increase the state and national GDP. The tourism sector is one of the sunrise sectors in the post-Covid period. It is expected to attract 13 million international tourists and 2 billion domestic tourists, create 88 million jobs, earn about $30 billion foreign exchange and contribute about $143 billion to the GDP in 2023, as per the Invest India web portal of the Government of India.
This sector demands huge infrastructure development, including roads and accommodation. Himachal Pradesh and Uttarakhand are situated in ecologically sensitive zones of the Himalayas. Both attract tourists from across the country and abroad. They are facing severe shortage of land for the development of infrastructure and amenities. As a result, most of the common property resources, such as forest land, wasteland and grazing land, riverbanks, lakes, rivulets and government land, have been encroached upon and developed into hotels and homestays to meet the rising demand for accommodation.
Many farmers have discontinued agriculture, given land on lease and converted their agricultural farms into homestays. Changes in the land use policy have resulted in deforestation in hill areas.
From 2013 to 2022, 87 per cent of the tree cover loss in Himachal Pradesh occurred within natural forests. Further, the state has promoted unregulated tourism through the Himachal Pradesh Home Stay Scheme, 2008; this has contributed to the growth of tourism and the plunder of common property resources. The state received 1.51 crore tourists in 2022, a nearly three-fold increase compared to the 2021 figure (56 lakh). Kullu district alone received almost one-fifth of the tourists who visited the state last year. The tourist footfall in HP in 2008 was just 97.5 lakh.
The rapid increase in tourism activities is unsustainable, given that the state has several ecologically sensitive areas. The reliance on the tourism industry and the non-diversification of economic activities are worrisome. They affect the states which rely heavily on revenue from tourism. The flawed policy of the government to sustain the economy has led to ecological destruction. The cost of ecological loss is very high and far-reaching; it eclipses the benefits obtained from the tourism economy.
In this context, the proposed amendments to the Forest Conservation Act need a critical review by lawmakers during the upcoming Monsoon Session of Parliament. This legislation will have an important bearing on the environment. The Forest Conservation Amendment Bill, 2023, tries to exempt certain types of forest land from the purview of the Act.
This will enable the Central Government to utilise forest land and non-classified forest land in states for non-forestry purpose after the grant of monetary compensation. The proposed amendment may pave the way for wanton appropriation of land in the guise of infrastructure development in ‘national interest’, such as the construction of highways, hydroelectricity projects, establishing check-posts, providing eco-tourism facilities, promoting safaris and allowing the establishment of zoos in forests.
The Bill also seeks to exclude public land recorded as a ‘forest’ but not notified as a ‘forest’ before 1980. It also seeks exemption on land whose classification was changed from ‘forest use’ to ‘non-forest use’ before 1996. The amendment may hamper the government’s objective of bringing 33 per cent of the geographical area of the country under forest cover, besides achieving the net-zero emission target by 2070.
Forests provide a plethora of critical and diverse ecosystem services to both local communities and the country. Many services, such as providing food, fibre, timber, medicinal plants, supporting biodiversity, carbon sequestration, carbon storage, climate change mitigation, conservation of soil, stabilisation of the water flow, prevention of floods, land degradation and desertification, and reducing the chances of natural disasters (floods, droughts, landslides etc.), help in realising the economic capabilities of the states to achieve sustainable development.
The flashfloods in north India remind us that forest resources of the country are important for national security and for realising sustainable development. Therefore, notification of forests for non-forest use is an instance of policy failure. The government needs to think about the action plan for sustainable management of forests and their ecosystem. The government should enact and enforce environmental policies and regulations which limit the extent of forest land that can legally be converted for non-forest use.
Krishna Raj is a Prof, Institute for Social and Economic Change, Bengaluru
This article was published in The Tribune as Natural disasters a stark reminder of policy failure on July 17, 2023.
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