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HomeEnvironmentBan on forest land diversions affecting the poor, vulnerable

Ban on forest land diversions affecting the poor, vulnerable

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Meenakshi Kapoor | TNR

Since March 2019, the Supreme Court (SC) has banned forest land diversions by Himachal Pradesh government. This 2019 verdicts bunched huge projects such as highway expansions and dam construction with small public welfare projects such as village roads, school and primary health centre constructions.

Decision based on SC monitoring committee

The decision was based on the recommendations of a Supreme Court monitoring committee headed by VP  Mohan for close monitoring of silviculture felling in the state in 2017. Silviculture is a method of managing forests for desired results such as timber, recreation. The committee, however, raised the issue of green cover reduction and deforestation.

SC clears diversion of forests

On February 15, this year, SC cleared diversion of forests for over 600 projects, many of these are mega projects with serious impact on the existing livelihood activities and ecological functions.  

Ban on future diversions remains

However, it hasn’t lifted the ban on future diversions, even for the projects under the Forest Rights Act (FRA), 2006 that are needed by the communities for better access to services such as road, water supply and education. This court-imposed ban has brought hardships for hill communities.

Increased vulnerability to floods and landslides

Of the 605 projects approved by the SC, 20 are hydroelectric projects and 88 are road projects. In the last three months, there have been three accidents in different hydro-projects in the state. Yet the obsession with the hydro-projects has only seen an uptick, especially in the current times when the Indian Government chasing a ‘green energy’ future.

Four-laning of highways

Four-laning of highways in the hill state has also caught the fancy of the government. The slopes have been cut, forests cleared, roads being carved, and the debris is often dumped carelessly along the roads, which eventually reaches the water streams and rivers.

Dharamshala is one of the wettest places in Himachal Pradesh. The region is used to heavy rains. However, when water streams are full of debris and muck, they swell up soon, even with a moderate amount of rain.

We saw a glimpse of it early this month when flash floods took ten lives and caused damage to property and structures in Dharamshala. The flash floods proved particularly disastrous for the waste workers of Charan Khad whose shanties were swept away with the rain.

Region falls in active sliding zone

The region falls in active sliding zone. Its deformed and fractured rocks give in easily under pressure. Several of the densely-populated pockets in the region with their multi-storey buildings many of which started as forest encroachments but were regularized eventually, are particularly susceptible to disasters.

Coupled with sewage and solid disposal systems that are unable to support the region’s population and structural growth adds to the vulnerability of its people and severity of disasters. “Inadequate sewage system pushes people to create septic tanks and water from these tanks drains into the soil and makes it more prone to landslides”, adds Dimple Behal, an urban planner based in Jalandhar, Punjab. During monsoon, brazenly cut hills, loose soil, construction debris dumped along the hills and exposed tree roots pave way for landslides. There is an ongoing landslide behind Dalai Lama temple, which is being held together with the help of a retaining wall.

Poor basic amenities

Case studies conducted by Himdhara, an environmental NGO based in Kangra showed that the district was in dire need of health and education facilities. As of October 2020, close to 33% of villages in Kangra didn’t have road connectivity. Villages like Balh, which are within the 10 km radius of the highly urbanised pockets of the Dharamsala block, lack road connectivity.

File photo for 2019 parliamentary elections when five villages of Dharamshala have boycotted polls. They don’t have any road due to forest land

In Dhared village, for instance, the old school building built on forest land was declared unsafe in 2009, but reconstruction of the school was pending till January 2020 due to this ban, notes the Himdhara study.

The above examples show how pooling forest land diversions for big-ticket projects and basic welfare activities for villages together, is causing hardships for the hill communities. Basic amenities such as road access, health services and education facility, which are their fundamental rights evade them due to the court-imposed ban on forest diversions.

But when they do get permissions for those, the experience is bitter-sweet as they come with permissions for several large development projects, which make the extreme events such as floods and landslides more wrathful for them.

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