New Delhi: Government think-tank NITI Aayog is working on a conceptual framework to introduce public-private partnership for afforestation programmes and allow private plantations in degraded natural forests, ThePrint has learnt.
According to a NITI Aayog presentation accessed by ThePrint, public-private partnership (PPP) in the field is required since “ongoing national forestry programmes have not made the desired impact”, and there is a need to revamp investments, bring in state-of-the-art technology and knowhow, as well as capacity and manpower.
The types of activities for which a PPP model could be implemented are producing timber- and non-timber-based forest products, organic cultivation supply chains, eco-camping, wilderness camps, recreation activity, etc, the plan suggests.
As rules stand, afforestation partners can include public-listed companies, co-operatives, public sector units (PSUs), forest development corporations (agencies under state governments), gram sabhas/village panchayats, and joint forest management committees (groups of forest-dwelling or forest-fringe communities that protect and manage forests alongside local authorities). Autonomous district and village development board and NGOs can be engaged as well.
If the Niti Aayog plan goes through, private companies will join this list as well.
The private partners the government would seek to target are small- and medium-scale harvesters, corporates, niche tourism players, etc, the plan states.
ThePrint reached NITI Aayog spokesperson Ravi Rama Krishna for a comment, but he asked the queries be directed to NITI Aayog CEO Amitabh Kant. In response to ThePrint’s email to Kant, his office said the subject concerned the Ministry of Environment, Forests and Climate Change.
Reached for a comment, an MoEFCC spokesperson said the presentation is “just a draft, and not a final policy of the government”. He said the presentation was due to be made earlier this month but could not be done due to some technical glitches.
Experts, meanwhile, have offered a mixed assessment on the proposal. They say the focus on degraded forests is welcome, but express apprehensions about involving private players.
Strict safeguards proposed
Degraded forests are those where productivity and/or diversity have fallen because of “unsustainable harvesting (removals exceeding replacements, changes in species composition), fire (except for fire dependent forest systems), pests, diseases, removal of nutrients and pollution/climate change (changes in productivity, total organic matter, and forest composition)”.
By several estimates, over 40 per cent of India’s forests are believed to be degraded.
According to the Niti Aayog presentation, all agreements would be tripartite in nature — involving the government, the private player, as well as the local community.
The government will be responsible for procuring access to compensatory afforestation land, monitoring the contract, setting performance targets, and ensuring that revenue is shared with community institutions.
The private player will be responsible for mobilisation of finances, investment in technology and resources, afforestation activities, and revenue generation.
The community institutions would be responsible for contributing labour, knowhow and local governance in afforestation activities, and would have a pre-specified revenue share over the produce.
The tenure of each partnership would be 25-30 years.
The presentation envisages the use of CAMPA — or Compensatory Afforestation Fund Management and Planning Authority — funds for the afforestation project.
When forest land is diverted for non-forest purposes with the permission of the government, compensatory afforestation is mandatory in order to compensate for the loss of biodiversity. This is done with the help of CAMPA funds.
If this goes through, it will be the first time India allows private partnership in forest land, and the NITI Aayog has prepared several safeguards against encroachment or land capture.
For example, the presentation states, no change will be allowed in the legal status of the forest land, stringent conditions with regard to land rights will be stipulated, linked to payment mechanisms, no misuse of land will be permitted, and strict adherence to relevant laws, rules and regulations will have to be observed. Any land capture will trigger termination of contract, and damages will be recovered from the concessionaire.
The NITI Aayog has also listed steps to be taken to implement the PPP model. There will have to be consultation with stakeholders from the Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change, detailing of the PPP framework, consultation with states, the community, potential partners or investors, and model bidding documents, and identification of pilot projects and partner states for Phase I.
Not a new proposal
There is no timeline stipulated in the presentation, but sources in the environment ministry said the plan has been in the pipeline for at least two years, and there is a desire to speed up the process now.
Introducing a PPP model for afforestation was first mentioned in the draft National Forest Policy 2018, which called for private partnership in degraded lands i.e. “lands with less than 40 per cent canopy density”.
According to the draft policy, “Public-private participation models will be developed for undertaking afforestation and reforestation activities in degraded forest areas and forest areas available with forest development corporations and outside forests.
“The lands available with the state forest development corporations which are degraded and underutilised will be managed for production of ‘quality timber’ with scientific interventions,” it added.
The National Forest Policy is yet to be cleared by the Cabinet.
The proposal was also mentioned in the “Strategy for New India at 75” document released by the Niti Aayog in November 2018. “State PSUs and the private sector should also be allowed to undertake compensatory afforestation on degraded government forestland like central PSUs,” the think-tank said in the document.
“Afforestation should be promoted aggressively through joint forest management (people’s participation) and the involvement of the private sector,” it added. “Highly denuded forests and wastelands in the country could be leased out to the private sector for specified periods for afforestation. Participation of people, particularly those dependent on forests for their livelihood, may also be encouraged along with the private sector.”
Pankaj Khullar, a retired Indian Forest Service (IFoS) officer, said the proposal is “an excellent one” in that it attempts to make use of large swathes of degraded forest land in the country.
“It is excellent that the government is ready to lease out forest land to private players if they are not able to make use of it, but this proposal does not appear to be based on the PPP model,” he added. “It is more like unproductive forest land is being leased out to private players to grow captive plantations for industry.”
Khullar added that it would be imperative for the government to look out for the interests of the local population and forest dwellers.
“No forest land, no matter how degraded it may be, is entirely unproductive. Even if it is used by forest dwellers for grazing their cattle, it is being put to use,” he said. “The government will have to ensure that the needs of the local dwellers are satisfied.”
However, other experts argue that bringing the private sector into forest land is a proposal fraught with peril.
A serving IFoS officer, who requested anonymity, said, “Allowing private partnership can seriously jeopardise the livelihoods of tribal communities and forest dwellers… These areas can benefit a lot more if the government focuses on agroforestry (a system of agriculture that involves cultivation and use of trees and crops on the same piece of land) on these lands instead.”
A.N. Prasad, a former IFoS officer who handled the forest conservation wing of the environment ministry, agreed. “There have been demands from the industry to open up forests for afforestation for many years now, but the government never budged because doing so defeats the whole purpose of the Forest Conservation Act, which explicitly prohibits leasing forest land to private bodies,” Prasad said.
“It is only logical that the industry’s limited concern would be to source raw materials for themselves, and there could be an obvious loss of biodiversity as well as loss of livelihood of local populations because of that.”