Forests Cannot be Compensated

Because, saplings cannot replace full-grown trees

The Supreme Court, hearing a challenge to proposed chopping down of trees by the thousands in the National Capital Region of Delhi, questioned how saplings could replace full grown trees. This wondering aloud was in response to the Delhi Government’s claim that the removal of trees will be redressed through compensatory afforestation. This is not the first time that the Supreme Court has questioned the concept and practicality of the compensatory afforestation concept. And not without reason either, because most times, this dodge has not even delivered as a fig leaf to the recklessness with which development bulldozes environment and rides roughshod over such niceties as conservation and nurture.

To begin with, compensatory afforestation is not a very scientific option. It does not take a degree in forestry or environmental sciences to deduce that a forest lost cannot be recreated elsewhere as compensatory afforestation seeks to achieve. Frighteningly, even though based on such dodgy logic, even this fig leaf has not been painted with any seriousness in our country. For a nation that has frequent non-forestry needs for forest tracts and has diverted these substantially since the 1950’s, the babudom and political combine stand exposed for their short-sightedness and disinterest in the fact that the Supreme Court had to intervene first in the year 2001 after it noticed that even though hundreds of crores were received for compensatory afforestation, there was no appropriate scheme for the disbursement of these funds, no codified guidelines on how compensatory afforestation should be directed. Given how even very specific environmental safeguards are routinely co-opted, it is anybody’s guess what our country received by way of compensatory afforestation till the Supreme Court was invoked and the free-for-all stalled.

To get an idea of how incomprehensibly compensatory afforestation funds were utilized, environmental activists from neighbouring Darjeeling point out how the West Bengal government diverted forest lands in Kalimpong sub-division and undertook compensatory afforestation in the plains of Jalpaiguri district!

Back in 2001, the Supreme Court had specified the guidelines and stipulated the checks and balances on how this fund should be utilized. The apex court has also stipulated scrutiny by CAG auditors. At least someone was taking environmental concerns seriously. What is necessary to understand is that compensatory afforestation is a very imperfect science, one that is necessitated by the still disoriented approach to development which looks at ‘exploiting’ resources instead of harnessing assets. Worse still for the ecological balance of the country, decades of lethargy in the planning process have led to a situation where environmental concerns will be forced to take a backseat [despite whatever the MoEF claims] in the face of energy shortfalls that cannot be compensated if environmental prudence takes prominence. The Supreme Court observations are thus welcome in that at least the tokenisms will be delivered in full, and in some cases, maybe even effectively. But the question which still hangs unaddressed is how saplings in a different location can replace full grown trees in locations where they obviously thrived?