In recent news reports there have been deliberations on whether there is a possibility of appealing a central government decision on forest clearances. In this context, the National Green Tribunal (NGT) has directed states to comply with the statutory requirement of passing an order notifying diversion of forest land for non-forest purposes. It has also held that it can hear appeals from the orders of state governments and other authorities on forest clearances.
The NGT was established in 2010 to deal with cases relating to environmental protection, and conservation of forests and other natural resources. The need was felt to have a mechanism to hear appeals filed by aggrieved citizens against government orders on forest clearances. For instance, the NGT can hear appeals against an order of the appellate authority, state government or pollution control board under the Water (Prevention and Control of Pollution) Act, 1974.
How is a forest clearance obtained?
Obtaining a forest clearance is a key step in the process of setting up a project. Recently the Chhatrasal coal mine allotted to Reliance Power’s 4,000 MW Sasan thermal power project in Madhya Pradesh has received forest clearance. The Ministry of Environment and Forests (MoEF) first gives ‘in-principle’ approval to divert forest land for non-forest purposes based on the recommendations of the Forest Advisory Committee. This approval is subject to the project developer complying with certain conditions. Once these conditions are complied with, the central government issues the final clearance. It is only after this clearance that the state government passes an order notifying the diversion of forest land. The NGT’s decision deals with this point in the process during which an appeal can be filed against the order of forest clearance. For the flowchart put out by the MoEF on the procedure for obtaining a forest clearance, see here.
What was the NGT’s ruling on forest clearances?
The NGT was hearing an appeal against a forest clearance given by the MoEF to divert 61 hectares of forest land for a hydroelectric project by GMR in Uttarakhand. The NGT has ruled that it does not have the jurisdiction to hear appeals against forest clearances given to projects by the MoEF. However, the NGT has the power to hear appeals on an order or decision made by a state government or other authorities under the Forest (Conservation) Act, 1980. The judgment observed that though Section 2 of the Forest (Conservation) Act, 1980 requires that state governments pass separate orders notifying the diversion of land, this requirement is not being followed. The NGT has directed that state governments pass a reasoned order notifying the diversion of the forest land for non-forest purposes, immediately after the central government has given its clearance. This will allow aggrieved citizens to challenge the forest clearance of a project after the state government has passed an order. Additionally, the NGT has also directed the MoEF to issue a notification streamlining the procedure to be adopted by state governments and other authorities for passing orders granting forest clearance under section 2 of the Forest (Conservation) Act, 1980.
There are some concerns that an appeal to the NGT can only be made after the state government has passed an order notifying the diversion of forest land and significant resources have been invested in the project.
What is the status of applications for forest clearances made to the MoEF?
The MoEF has given approval to 1126 proposals that involve the diversion of 15,639 hectares of forest land from July 13, 2011 to July 12, 2012. The category of projects accorded the most number of approvals was road projects (308) followed by transmission lines (137). Some of the other categories of projects that received clearance for a significant number of projects were mining, hydel and irrigation projects. However, most land was diverted for mining related projects i.e., 40% of the total forest land diverted in this period. Figure 1 shows a break up of the extent of forest land diverted for various categories of projects. The number of forest clearances pending for decision by the MoEF for applications made in the years 2012, 2011 and 2010 are 197, 129 and 48 respectively. [i]
 MoEF, Rajya Sabha, Unstarred Question no. 2520, September 4, 2012