Compensatory Afforestation – Where is the Land?

Divya Mehra

It is well established that India is an ‘under-construction’ country. As a developing economy, the country invests a significant amount of its budget in new development projects that are being proposed, planned, and implemented at the regional or local level. Very often the land for development projects is taken from the forest area resulting in the diversion of forest land for non-forest purposes. A total of 11,467.83 hectares (114.68 square kilometers) of forest lands was diverted in 22 states between 01 January 2019 and 06 November 2019 for 932 projects under the Forest (Conservation) Act (FCA), 1980 (Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change, 2020).

To mitigate the destruction of vast areas of forested land due to development and industrial projects like irrigation, hydropower, mining, construction of industrial units, roads, railways, canals, urban expansion, etc., the Constitution of India, under its realm, has made a provision for ‘Compensatory Afforestation’, institutionalised as part of the Compensatory Afforestation Fund Act, 2016.

Compensatory Afforestation (CA) is the plantation carried out as an offset to the forest lost as a result of development projects.  It is derived from the Forest Conservation Act (FCA), 1980, stipulating that afforestation be carried out in ‘compensation’ for forest land diverted for non-forestry uses. CA can be done over an equivalent area of non-forest land or degraded forest twice the extent of the area being diverted if non-forestland is unavailable. The ‘user agency’ (the agency which applies for forest clearance) has to compensate for the loss of forests either by raising and maintaining the plantation on its own or by paying the concerned authority the money to do so. These funds are calculated according to the Net Present Value (K. Chopra Committee Report, 2006) of the services which were provided by the forest land and the ground rent of the area where the afforestation is being carried out (Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change, 2013).  

“Compensatory Afforestation is one of the most important conditions stipulated by the Central Government while approving proposals for de-reservation or diversion of forest land for non-forest uses. It is essential that with all such proposals, a comprehensive scheme for Compensatory Afforestation is formulated and submitted to the Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change.‟

(FCA, 1980)

The land for the afforestation should be a ‘non-forest land’ equivalent to the forest land diverted. It should be identified in proximity to a Reserved Forest or a Protected Forest. If the non-forest land is not available in the same district, then CA should be done anywhere else in the same State/Union Territory (UT) as near as possible to the site of diversion. However, if the non-forest land is not available anywhere in the State/UT, then CA can be carried out on a ‘degraded forest land’, but the extent of the plantation site should be twice the extent of the land diverted for non-forest use (Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change, 2019). According to India’s Forest Advisory Committee, forest land with crown density below 40 per cent will be treated as degraded forest land for Compensatory Afforestation. Crown density is the ratio between the cover formed by top branches of trees in a forest and the land area.

While this may seem like a good fix for the forest land lost to development, CA comes with a host of associated challenges. One of the important issues is the availability of land to carry out plantation. As discussed above, there is a set criterion for selecting land to carry out plantations, but States are struggling to find these lands. For instance, recently, it was reported that Delhi Development Authority is struggling to find non-forest land within the city limits to carry out Compensatory Afforestation. Due to the paucity of land for plantation in the capital city, the land-owning agency is now exploring if land for CA can be made available in neighbouring States for proposed development projects in Delhi.

This implies that Compensatory Afforestation of deforested area cannot take place in the nearby forest land and will instead be carried out in a different region altogether, far from the destructed land. Paradoxically, this would not act as compensation for the fully functioning forests of that region. In addition to this, new plantations may compensate for tree cover but they cannot compensate for the actual loss of ecosystem services provided by a full-grown forest. Thus, the Compensatory Afforestation programme is merely about planting trees, but trees are just one part of the complex ecosystems that constitute forests (Karthik & Kodiveri, 2018)

As the scale of diversion taking place is usually quite large, an equivalent area of non-forest land or double the area of degraded land will be required for CA. Where will such large amounts of non-forest/degraded land come from? This will either need land acquisition at an unprecedented scale or it will lead to a huge land grab (Saxena, 2019). Land acquisition under the Compensatory Afforestation Fund Act violates existing land acquisition procedures in India and makes it a backdoor to land acquisition (Karthik & Kodiveri, 2018). In many cases, community (common) land is also used as a plantation site without consulting the local community. The paucity of land has also led to the creation of “land banks”, meaning, the State Government will keep non-forested land available in the bank for future use (Ghosh, 2017). This land can then be used whenever needed and would also reduce the delays in environmental clearance.

Compensatory Afforestation, instead of making up for the actual forest loss, may be accelerating the invasion of India’s forests by legitimising the destruction of forests, greenwashing, land grabs, and encroaching common property resources and community held lands (Ghosh, 2017).


About the Author
About the Author

Divya is a Research Assistant at the Centre for Urban Ecology and Sustainability, Ambedkar University Delhi (AUD). Her admiration of trees and forests started at a very young age. Her curiosity to understand the functioning of biodiversity and ecosystems led her to do her Masters in Environment and Development from the School of Human Ecology, Ambedkar University Delhi. She has been associated with a conservation organisation, working mostly on urbanisation and land-use change and its impact on forested areas.

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