MoEFCC U-turn on Forest Act bodes ill for Melghat

NAGPUR: With the BJP in government at the Centre again, the Union ministry of environment, forest and climate change (MoEFCC) has taken a U-turn on applicability of Forest (Conservation) Act, 1980, over right of way (RoW) for railway projects.

Greens fighting to save one of country’s oldest tiger reserves Melghat (2,700sqkm) in Amravati district see red in the latest move that they allege is being pushed to broaden existing metre gauge railway line through the reserve. Of the 176km Akola-Khandwa railway line, 39km passes through Melghat.

On May 21, MoEFCC AIG (FC Division) Sandeep Sharma issued a circular to all the states clarifying: “If the land is a railway land (ownership of the land vests with railways) and which is under non-forest use before October 25, 1980, then provisions of FCA would not apply. This position would apply till further orders.”

“It is simply shocking. The fresh order, which was unwarranted, intends to dilute FCA, will open floodgates for destruction of wildlife habitats in the country. It was issued when model code of conduct was in force for general elections,” says honorary wildlife warden Jaydeep Das.

Earlier, the same MoEFCC on December 5, 2017, in the gauge conversion matter of Melghat had specifically said, “FCA will be applicable for diversion of forest land for non-forestry purpose irrespective of ownership of the forest land. Such state lands cannot be acquired and transferred to railways under Section 11 (a) of the Railway Act 1989 without following the provisions of FCA.”

Interestingly, MoEFCC had obtained legal opinion of law & judiciary ministry which said, “Though the railway administration has the power under Section 11 (a) of the Railway Act to construct or maintain railway on any land, it appears so far assignment of forest land (other than railways land) falling in ROW is concerned it will attract FCA.”

MoEFCC had also said such projects needed approval from National Board for Wildlife (NBWL). On February 25, NBWL has rejected the Melghat railway line upgradation proposal and returned it to state government.

The project was rejected after Supreme Court’s Central Empowered Committee (CEC), while deciding two petitions, on January 31, put the ball in NBWL’s court asking it to reconsider the project.

“With the fresh directives, it seems the BJP government wants to reopen the matter. Otherwise, what was the need for such a letter when things have already been cleared by the law ministry and MoEFCC. The state too in its submission has said ‘no’ to upgradation,” said environment lawyer from Akot Manish Jeswani, who had moved CEC.

Another petitioner Mumbai-based Prasad Khale of Conservation Action Trust (CAT) decided to move the Supreme Court if the project is reopened. “When you have an alternative, why upgrade the line and damage the tiger reserve,” he asked.

In another development, national secretary of Confederation of All India Traders (CAIT) Ashokkumar Dalmia, in a letter to Prime Minister Narendra Modi has urged to take up the stalled work of Akot-Khandwa-Mhow rail line at the infra projects review meeting slated for June 19. Greens apparently see the move to take the project through MTR only. Those who want the project to be completed are pointing out Akola MP Sanjay Dhotre, now a union minister, had met highways minister Nitin Gadkari and railways minister Piyush Goyal to clear hurdles in the work last year.

State Govt No To Project

  • In June 2018 Railway Board gives go ahead to line through MTR
  • The decision challenged before CEC in August 2018
  • CEC issues notices and hears all parties on January 16, 2019
  • State opposes project through tiger reserve. NTCA and WII too say ‘avoidance’ of line through MTR is best mitigation
  • On January 31, CEC asks for alternative alignment and puts ball in NBWL court
  • NBWL rejects railway proposal on Feb 25 and returns proposal
  • Now MoEFCC does a U-turn