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Land diversion laws driving an environmental crisis?

Deforestation Image ID: 115995103 (L) Image credit: max5128 / 123rf. Land diversion article illustration.
Image credit: max5128 / 123rf

India’s forests and their inhabitants are under threat. Land diversion laws may be driving the crisis, as an analysis by IndiaSpend reported on Friday.

Deforestation in India is a considerable environmental and public health threat. Earlier this year, I quoted in a report for Health Issues India the words of a 1982 paper by B. Bowonder published in the International Journal of Environmental Studies. Those words read “the rate of deforestation is likely to increase over the coming years. Major policy changes needed to reverse this trend are identified. They include increased commitment towards forest production and intensive agroforestry programmes.”

These words have proven to be disturbingly prescient in the decades since that paper’s publication. As I noted in that article, “India has lost copious amounts of green space to deforestation in recent decades. Between 2001 and 2018 alone, India lost more than 1.625 million hectares of tree cover. In the same timeframe, northeast India alone accounted for more than seventy percent of the country’s overall tree loss.” 

Land diversion laws are being increasingly flagged as a driver of the country’s deforestation crisis. An article published last year in Down To Earth noted, “a total 11,467.83 hectares (114.68 square kilometre) forest lands were diverted in 22 states between January 1 and November 6, 2019. This diversion was for 932 non-forestry projects under the Forest (Conservation) Act (FCA), 1980, according to the Union Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change Annual Report 2019-20.” The report can be accessed here.

The Forest (Conservation) Act (FCA), 1980 is flagged in the IndiaSpend analysis, alongside the Compensatory Afforestation Fund Act, 2016 (CAFA) which, the report explains, “regulates the funds for compensatory afforestation.” These two items of legislation, C. R. Bijoy writes in the report, have had a far-reaching impact on both forests and their dwellers. Bijoy explains

“Through repeated and incremental amendments to these laws, successive governments, in 2013, 2014 and 2016, have watered down the requirement of consent from Gram Sabhas (villagers coming together in a general assembly) before the diversion of land and enabled bypassing the rights of people over forest land. Poor implementation of compensatory afforestation has also led to improper or no afforestation, which has harmed India’s biodiversity. 

“These and other amendments over the past three decades have weakened environmental safeguards to the extent that environmental clearances have become a paper-stamping exercise. Right now, the Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change…is trying to introduce further changes through the Environment Impact Assessment notification for environmental clearances, which environmentalists have criticised as a move to dilute the requirements to obtain green clearances.” 

As Health Issues India has outlined in the past, deforestation takes its toll on public health. Earlier this year, we published a report that highlighted how “rates of zoonotic diseases — those spread by animals — have shown a correlation with those living in areas close to fragmented forests.” From the United States, we used the example of “Lyme disease, spread by ticks, [which] has shown to increase in areas associated with fragmented forests and deforestation.” 

As far as India is concerned, we noted that 

“Across the Western Ghats, deforestation is giving rise to higher rates of Kyasanur forest disease (KFD)…experts found through satellite imagery that areas prone to outbreaks coincided with those that were currently witnessing deforestation. This deforestation typically meant that human activity in the area increased, often bringing farm animals which could also potentially harbour the ticks.” 

In addition, deforestation is a well-established driver of climate change. This phenomenon is linked to a plethora of threats to human health, from increased susceptibility of some populations to various infectious diseases such as those borne by mosquitoes or those that are water-borne to the health risks of conditions such as heat stress.

The World Health Organization (WHO) has spoken out on the risks of climate change to health. WHO Director-General Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus last year said in a statement “only when countries can provide health services to all, including those in greatest jeopardy from climate change, will we achieve our goals of promoting health, keeping the world safe, and protecting the vulnerable.”

Land diversion laws represent a contributor to deforestation and, by extension, climate change and the many health crises it engenders. It also hits those who reside in forests hard. The IndiaSpend analysis provides a comprehensive overview of the damage that is being done – and why it is crucial that we take notice. Read it here.

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