A recent audit report by the Comptroller and Auditor General (CAG) of India tabled in the Himachal Pradesh Assembly on 22 February, 2014 tells the sordid tale of how compensatory afforestation remains a neglected cause in this hill state.

Against the diversion of 4080 hectares of forestland for non-forestry purposes during the period 2006-2012, compensatory afforestation was expected to be carried out at the rate of two hectares per hectare diverted. This means that such afforestation work should have covered 8160 hectares, but audit scrutiny found that during the same period, the State Forest Department or the State Compensatory Afforestation Fund Management and Planning Authority (CAMPA) carried out such work on only 2789 hectares of land.

This means that the shortfall was as high as 66 per cent, which suggests that despite a lot of rhetoric on conservation, Himachal is losing its forestland at higher rates than those of its lame-duck efforts to compensate such loss.

CAG auditors carried out test-check audits in 14 forest divisions for compensatory afforestation work pertaining to diversion of 1424.5 hectares of forest land during 2003 to 2012. Compensatory afforestation in these cases was required to be carried out on 2849 hectares of degraded forest land, and audit scrutiny revealed that as of March 2013 compensatory afforestation was carried out on a mere 79.25 hectares, that is, only on an abysmal 3 percent.

What is worse, these 79 odd hectares on which work was done covered only two out of the 14 test-checked divisions.The remaining 12 divisions had nothing to show for compensatory afforestation!

The District Forest Officers of only five divisions came forward to place on record their replies to such a shocking audit finding, arguing that “due to non-receipt of approval of Annual Plan of Operations from the higher authorities and non-availability of land banks, compensatory afforestation could not be carried out to the prescribed extent”.

Non-availability of land bank doesn’t appear visible, however, when the Expert Appraisal Committee of the Ministry of Environment and Forests grants forest clearance to project proponents without even batting an eyelid or reflecting on compensatory afforestation.

Forest land in Himachal Pradesh. Pic: Wikimedia

More than a decade back, in October 2002, the Supreme Court through its orders directed the Union Government of India to create a centralised Compensatory Afforestation Fund. While the Ministry of Environment and Forests (MoEF) created the Compensatory AfforestationFund Management and Planning Authority (CAMPA) in April 2004, it could not be made operational. Yet another Supreme Court order in May 2006 forced the Union Government to constitute an ad hoc CAMPA and directed all state governments to deposit the amounts collected by them from respective user agencies towards compensatory afforestation purposes.

After receiving guidelines on the constitution of State CAMPA, the Himachal state government formed the same in August 2009 “to accelerate the activities of compensatory afforestation, management and protection of forests and wildlife, development of infrastructure and allied work.” To implement CAMPA at the state level, three committees were appointed in August 2009.

The Governing Body at the apex level is comprised of the chief minister as chairperson, the forest minister as vice chairperson, the principal chief conservator of forests as member secretary and nine other members. This committee was expected to lay down the policy framework for the functioning of CAMPA and review its functioning from time to time.

However, audit scrutiny revealed that the Governing Body had neither laid down any policy framework nor reviewed the functioning of the State CAMPA till May 2013. Worse still, since its conception the governing body hadn’t met even a single time!

The other committees did not fare vastly better in any sense. The steering committee for the State CAMPA – consisting of the Chief Secretary as chairperson, the Additional Principal Chief Conservator of Forests as member secretary and 10 other members – was expected to lay down or approve rules and procedures for functioning of the State CAMPA and its executive committee.

The steering committee of the State CAMPA was expected to meet at least once in six months. Audit scrutiny revealed that there was an instance when the steering committee did not meet for ten and half months at a stretch. It was also revealed that necessary rules and procedures had not been framed by the steering committee as of May 2013.

The executive committee for the state CAMPA is headed by the Principal Chief Conservator of Forests and has the Nodal Officer (CAMPA) as member secretary and six other members. It was expected to prepare and submit the Annual Plan of Operations relating to various compensatory afforestation activities before the end of December for each financial year to the steering committee for approval.

As per guidelines, the executive committee was also expected to supervise the compensatory afforestation works being implemented. However, in the absence of any specification of the quantum of works to be supervised, the procedure and the time scheduled for that, the executive committee ended up not supervising any compensatory afforestation activities during the period 2009-2013.

Audit scrutiny revealed that the executive committee had prepared a post-facto Annual Plan of Operations for the year 2009-10 and submitted it to the steering committee on 31 August 2009, whereas funds were released by the ad hoc CAMPA on 21 August 2009.

During the years 2010-2013, the annual plans of operation were submitted on 31 December and not earlier. The steering committee, too, granted its approval after substantial delays ranging between 67 and 290 days, entailing further delay in the receipt of funds from CAMPA.

Recovery from user agencies

The performance audit shows that despite the Supreme Court order in October 2002 regarding the collection of Net Present Value from user agencies as a cost of ecosystem lost, as well as the cost of Compensatory Afforestation activities and Catchment Area Treatment (in case of hydroelectric projects having generating capacity of 10 MW or more), the State CAMPA failed to realise these huge amounts from the user agencies.

The forest department had not maintained any record relating to assessment and realisation of dues on account of Net Present Value (NPV), Compensatory Afforestation activities and Catchment Area Treatment (CAT) from user agencies, in respect of forest-land diversion for the period 2002-03 to 2005-06. Besides such an unpardonable lapse, an unspent amount of Rs 21.51 crores lying with the department in respect of Catchment Area Treatment plans of hydro electric projects pertaining to the years 2002-2006 was also not credited into CAMPA funds.

Thus, not only did the state forest department fail to comply with the directions of the Supreme Court, but also when the steering committee pointed out this violation and directed the department to transfer the unspent amount to the ad hoc CAMPA after reconciliation of figures with the Finance Department, the authority failed to comply with these directions (as of May 2013). Instead, the State CAMPA indulged in unauthorised reimbursement of Rs 4.73 crores to the state government.

During the period 2006-2013, the Forest Department/State CAMPA realised an amount of Rs 908.69 crore on account of NPV (Rs 390.12 crore), CA (Rs 112.52 crore) and CAT Plan (Rs 406.05 crore) and remitted this entire amount to ad hoc CAMPA. However, despite instructions from the Government of India dated June 2010, the State CAMPA had not maintained date wise records relating to collection and remittance and had not carried out any reconciliation of deposits with the ad hoc CAMPA as of May 2013. Without such basic records, how can a constitutional auditor perform the scrutiny of actual assessment, realisation and accounting of receipts of NPV, CA and CAT funds?

In an order dated September 2006, the Supreme Court further clarified that NPV was payable by user agencies in all cases of diversion of forestland for which final approval had been granted on or after 30 October 2002. During the performance review of State CAMPA, it was noticed that in 21 cases of forestland diversion, final approval was accorded after 30 October, but the forest department had still not initiated any action for assessment and realisation of NPV amounting to Rs 8.67 crores as of November 2013.

When the CAG auditors pointed out this non-compliance, the state government admitted the facts and argued (almost as if on the behalf of project proponents) that “due to the amount becoming leviable with retrospective effect, the case for exemption was being taken up with the GoI”. They continue to advance the same argument to date!

These findings strongly suggest that it is perhaps time for the learned judges to ponder over how little the orders issued by them clarify, and how lax the state forest departments and Union Ministry of Environment and Forest are in ensuring compliance.

Pronouncing its opinion, the CAG states “The fact, thus, remained that the Apex Court directions had not been complied with.” What now remains to be seen is whether the forest bench of the Supreme Court or the National Green Tribunal will take cognizance of the same and issue severe penalties.