MoEF issues new Guidelines for Railway Projects in Forest Lands

BENGALURU: The new guidelines from the Ministry of Environment and Forests (MoEF) is very clear that any new railway track or doubling project will attract provisions of forest and wildlife laws. This rule will hold good even for those forest lands that are owned by the railway department. These guidelines will have far-reaching and positive effects on new as well as ongoing railway projects in four districts of Mysuru, Chamarajnagar, Kodagu and Uttar Kannada, comprising the tiger reserves of Bandipur, Nagarhole and Kali and Dandeli Wildlife Sanctuary.

In the wake of repeated confusion, the MoEF has come out with clarifications and new guidelines that will be applicable for new rail track and gauge conversion projects. According to Naresh Kumar, Deputy Inspector General of Forests, Forest Conservation Division, MoEF, these guidelines will see application of both Forest (Conservation) Act, (FCA) 1980 and Wildlife Protection Act, (WPA)1972 on forest lands falling in the Right of Way (RoW) of the Railways in the light of Railways Act, 1989.

The DIG (F) states, “Till date, Railways have insisted that forest and wildlife laws are not applicable to forest lands falling in the RoW and so, they have the power to acquire and divert forest lands under Section 11 (a) of Railway Act, 1989. We have been repeatedly clarifying that both the acts are applicable for diversion of forest lands for non-forestry purposes irrespective of the ownership of forest lands. This land owned by the State cannot be acquired and transferred to the Railways under Section 11 (a) of Railway Act,1989 without following the provisions of FCA and WPA.” The law ministry too has opined that though the railway department can construct and maintain a railway line on any land, however, as far as forest land was concerned, it will attract provisions of FCA.

Further, the definition of ‘forest land’ by Supreme Court is very clear. As per Section 2 of FCA, the word ‘forest land’ will not only include forest as understood in its dictionary sense but also any area recorded as forest in government records irrespective of ownership or classification. However, railway projects passing through notified ecologically sensitive zone or located within 10 km of wildlife sanctuary/national parks/tiger reserves are not required to obtain wildlife clearances from National Board for Wildlife (NBWL) as these do not need any environmental clearance.

But projects passing through the areas linking one preserved area or tiger reserve with another cannot be allowed for ecologically unsustainable use, except in public interest with approval of NBWL on the advice of National Tiger Conservation Authority .Welcoming the new guidelines for the implementation of railway projects in forest lands, forest officials say this will clear the prevailing confusion on forest lands in possession of the railways.

This will also play a very crucial role in conserving the remaining forest habitat and protecting critical wildlife habitats through which many railway projects have been implemented while many new ones are proposed for the state. Wildlife activist Giridhar Kulkarni  says, “We are happy to see such a strong vision coming from MoEF in saving our wildlife. When it comes to the proposed Nanjangud-Nilambur and Mysore-Thalassery railway lines through Bandipur and Nagarhole Tiger reserves, these are fresh proposals and necessary permissions are being sought by the Railway Ministry.

There is also a proposal to double the existing Hospete-Tinnaighat-Castlerock line through Dandeli Wildlife Sanctuary. We have strongly opposed this project as this railway line has already claimed the lives of two elephants, 10 gaurs and other small and big mammals outside the sanctuary limits.”

Habitat destruction: MoEF admits that railway projects passing through sanctuaries/parks/tiger reserves amounts to destruction of habitat as per Section 29, 35 (6) and 38 (O) (1) (g) of WPA, 1972. Railways cannot acquire forest land under Railways Act, 1989. Prior approval is needed as per FCA, 1980. State govt cannot assign/allot forest lands without MoEF approval. Wildlife protected areas will require NBWL clearance. Any forest land diversion before 25.10.1980 will not attract FCA.  Any PA diversion before 25.10.1980 will attract WPA