Diversion of forest land for border infrastructure projects gets govt nod

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New Delhi: The Union environment ministry has given a “general approval” for the diversion of forest land for major border infrastructure projects within a 16-km aerial distance of the border with Bhutan and Myanmar and a 15-km aerial distance of the Nepal border.

The move will strengthen the preparation of security forces in border areas where infrastructure development work is hampered by slow government clearances. The general approval will lead to quick development of critical border infrastructure such as border posts, roads, fencing, surveillance infrastructure and floodlights.

India shares a 1,751-km border with Nepal, a 1,643-km border with Myanmar and a 699-km border with Bhutan.

The order from the forest conservation division, under the Harsh Vardhan-led ministry of environment, forest and climate change, was sent to all state governments on Thursday.

The National Democratic Alliance (NDA) government has been concerned about slow forest clearances delaying critical border infrastructure ever since it came to power.

In January 2015, the environment ministry had given general approval under the Forest Conservation (FC) Act 1980 for diversion of forest land for border security infrastructure projects like border roads, outposts, floodlights, surveillance and power infrastructure within a 5-km aerial distance of international borders. This approval was for work to be done by paramilitary organizations such as Border Security Force (BSF) and Sashastra Seema Bal (SSB).

However, the home ministry recently requested the environment ministry to extend the general approval to projects involving forest land within a 16-km aerial distance from the Myanmar and Bhutan borders and within 15-km of the India-Nepal border.

The environment ministry’s order of 21 December, reviewed by Mint, said: “After careful consideration with a view to expedite creation of strategic infrastructure along the international border”, the general approval was being accorded under section 2 of the FC Act. The general approval will be valid until 31 December 2020.

However, the ministry specified that the general approval for border infrastructure work for all other international borders would be for forest land within a 5-km aerial distance.

According to the order, the general approval will be for infrastructure projects related to national security being executed by paramilitary organizations such as BSF, SSB, Border Roads Organisation and other central government agencies like National Highway and Infrastructure Development Corporation Limited.

The ministry has also stipulated various conditions for the general approval. For instance, it specified that “legal status of forest land shall remain unchanged” and that the “forest land proposed to be diverted shall be located outside the protected areas notified under the Wildlife Protection Act, 1972”. It also said that all efforts shall be made by agencies to “explore all feasible alternatives to minimise use of forest land”.

“Forest land to be used for creation of border infrastructure shall be restricted to the bare minimum and shall be used only when it is unavoidable,” the order added.

The order also said that the “user agency shall be responsible for any loss to the flora and fauna in the surroundings and therefore shall take all possible measures to conserve the same”.

In August 2017, in view of the poor defence infrastructure along the sensitive India-China border, the environment ministry had done away with the need for forest clearance for infrastructure projects for the army within 100km of the Line of Actual Control.