Inviolate forest policy: Pared down, in limbo

The revised inviolate forest policy, meant to keep miners out of the country's healthy green patches, promises to be completely ineffectual. The policy, revised four times, has been whittled down substantially.

Business Standard reviewed documents that revealed how the environment ministry, under the National Democratic Alliance (NDA) and United Progressive Alliance (UPA) governments, consciously went about diluting the criteria for identifying inviolate forests by forming several committees and holding a series of formal and informal meetings. The documents also showed this dilution was done by keeping the coal, mining and steel ministries in the loop, despite issues being raised about conflict of interest in the case of these ministries.

In its original avatar, the policy stopped mining in 47 per cent of the areas in identified coal blocks, as these reserves were in healthy forestland. But the criteria for defining a good forest was repeatedly and severely watered down to limit the ban to less than 19 per cent of the land under identified coal blocks. Yet, the government is looking to relax the bar further; it hasn't accepted the draft policy yet. In fact, it has not made the revised policy public.

Business Standard reviewed the revised policy, too.

Environmental groups were hoping the inviolate policy would be implemented before the coal blocks were auctioned. According to Greenpeace, "The government should seriously consider adopting such criteria before the auctioning the cancelled coal blocks. Inviolate criteria that are scientific and fair towards forest protection will benefit the investors by reducing delays and risks of rejection of projects."

But the NDA government has begun the process of redistribution of coal blocks without waiting to implement even the weakened inviolate policy. At the same time, a high-level panel set up under ex-Cabinet secretary T S R Subramanian to review environment laws has recommended paring down the inviolate policy further.

The original policy

The inviolate policy was originally called the 'no-go' policy. It was mooted by Coal India and the coal ministry in 2009, with Jairam Ramesh at helm of the ministry, under the UPA government. They sought a degree of certainty about the areas for which they would be given green clearances to cut forests and mine.

Together, they decided the minimum quality of forests that must be protected. Based on these criteria, their report in 2010 said 47 per cent of the areas under 602 coal blocks fell under no-go zones. This meant stopping mining in 206 blocks. Under the UPA government, the Prime Minister's Office rejected this, asking Ramesh to scale this down.

Following this, the environment minister changed the parameters to let another 29 coal blocks be included in 'go' areas, despite these having isolated patches of good forests. Ramesh also allowed 24 additional coal blocks that had already secured forest clearances to be classified as 'go' areas. Another 28 coal blocks were also added to the permissible list by excluding some forest areas from the blocks. At the end of this revision, 71 per cent of coal block areas was open to mining. This implied coal in 8.11 per cent of the potential area would have to remain in the ground.

But the government wasn't satisfied. Seeking a 'scientific' method to identify no-go areas, the exercise was suspended in 2011, as coal mining was cleared on a piecemeal basis.

By then, Jayanthi Natarajan had taken charge as environment minister.

To review the policy, a committee was set up under the environment secretary. It set out to determine 'inviolate' forests, a new moniker for the same concept. Unexpectedly, the committee came up with an elaborate method, using six parameters to value good forests.

It put some forests automatically out of the reach of miners. These included designated national parks, sanctuaries and forests that served as catchment of utilised first-order perennial streams. For the rest, the assessment was based on six criteria - forest density, forest type, the level of fragmentation of forests, biodiversity richness of the area, wildlife value of a forest patch and the value a patch provided in keeping alive water sources. It was noted the data for all these existed with the government in digital and mapped format and, therefore, could be easily used. The report was finalised by July 2012 and released for comment in January 2013.

Natarajan, too, came under pressure, this time from other arms of the government. Expectedly the coal, mining and steel ministries wrote against the report, asking for dilutions. While the power ministry said the policy shouldn't be applicable to captive coal blocks, the Planning Commission claimed it had not been authored by experts, despite the committee having experts from institutions such as the Forest Survey of India, the Wildlife Institute of India, the National Biodiversity Authority and the National Tiger Conservation Authority.

More than 20 environmental groups, experts and tribal right advocates also voiced their opinion. They noted the classification was weak. Several raised a major concern - while devising the criteria for inviolate area, the rights of those living in coal block areas, including tribals, under the Forest Rights Act had been ignored.

The government asked Natarajan to consult "stakeholders" and those who had commented on the report. The environment secretary tried to set up yet another panel to revise the criteria for inviolate areas, a third time, through hand-picked experts and officials from the mines, coal and steel ministries. Facing resistance from the minister, the matter was put on the back burner till a change at the helm of the ministry.

Revived to pare down

When Veerappa Moily took charge of the environment ministry, Environment Secretary V Rajagopalan again proposed a new committee be constituted under him, with other ministry officials on board as special invitees. Moily approved this and the grounds were set for a third revision of the no-go policy in March this year. The environment secretary directed the impact of the proposed inviolate policy on mines be assessed first. The comments of other experts and stakeholders were ignored.

Under the NDA government, the environment secretary held a series of formal and informal meetings. Step by step, the inviolate area policy was unstitched, minutes of these meetings showed. For all practical purposes, two parameters were dropped - hydrological value of forests and wildlife values. Almost all others were pared down and diluted.

The environment secretary asked the Forest Survey of India (FSI) to see how the criteria would impact coal blocks. The FSI reviewed 725 coal blocks in 15 coal fields. Only 55 coal blocks, across 990 sq km fell entirely in the inviolate zone (where no mining would be allowed). Parts of some other coal blocks also fell in identified inviolate forest patches. The FSI concluded the inviolate area "forms only 18.68 per cent of the total coal field area".

The report, by now with too many revisions to count, was ready by August this year. This diluted inviolate area policy, too, was sent back to various ministries for comment. The coal ministry demanded the norms be eased further.

Several environment ministry officials Business Standard contacted did not wish to comment on the draft policy and its status. Off the record, two of them indicated it was work in progress.

Earlier, Environment Minister Prakash Javadekar had stated a GIS-based decision support system for clearing projects had been put in place. The system is run by the FSI, but the criteria for taking such decisions (such as in the case of inviolate forests) are controlled by the ministry. One of the two officials said, "You cannot shut a file so easily. So, the file is alive in the system. What will become of it eventually is unclear."

The report hasn't been made public by the NDA government yet. The T S R Subramanian committee, set up to revise environmental laws, has given its suggestions on the issue to the government. Asking for the policy be toned down further, it said inviolate areas should be simply restricted to existing national parks and sanctuaries (which are anyway restricted for miners) and very dense forests. It suggests all other parameters measuring the value and quality of forests be dropped. Very dense forests account for only 12 per cent of the total forest cover and much of it is designated as parks and sanctuaries. Only a portion of it is under the country's coal bearing areas.

As of now, the draft inviolate policy means little, as coal blocks, including those in the proposed inviolate forest areas, have been put up for distribution again.


  • 2009: First 'no-go' policy by Coal India and the environment ministry, under Jairam Ramesh

  • 2010: PMO seeks the policy be diluted, opening more coal blocks to mining. Ramesh obliges, putting 71% of the coal block area

  • 2011: Govt puts policy on hold, clears coal blocks on a piecemeal basis and seeks another revision

  • 2012: Under Jayanthi Natarajan, revised criteria for 'inviolate policy' developed. Government puts it under the scalpel yet again

  • 2013-14: The environment ministry, under the UPA and, subsequently, NDA government, repeatedly dilutes policy criteria, working with the mines, coal and steel ministries

  • August 2014: Fourth revised version of policy ready but kept under wraps; it is sent to the mines, coal and steel ministry for review

  • November 2014: T S R Subramanian panel recommends the policy be further pruned. Coal blocks back on auction; policy remains in limbo

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