The National Green Tribunal (NGT) stayed Friday an August 2014 order of the Ministry of Environment and Forests that “simplified” the forest clearance process for linear projects by allowing tree-felling and commencement of work on the basis of in-principle approval with a provision allowing five years for final clearance.
The five-judge principal bench of NGT headed by Justice Swatanter Kumar stayed the operation of two orders of the ministry and restrained all agencies involved in linear projects — railway lines, roads, canals, power and pipelines — from felling trees and diverting forest land on the basis of in-principle or stage-two approval.
In January this year, the MoEF, in its publication ‘Towards Transparency and Good Governance’, highlighted how it “amended relevant guidelines for linear projects allowing the user agency to start work after in-principle approval subject to payment of compensatory levies”.
The same month, the MoEF issued another circular saying that an official not below the rank of divisional forest officer (DFO) could be authorised to issue permission for felling trees.
Under Section 2 of the Forest Conservation (FC) Act, 1980 and its interpretation by the tribunal, no forest land can be diverted — and trees felled — until and unless the state government concerned issues an order to that effect following stage one (in-principle) and stage two (final) approval from the Centre. Also, under Section 16 of the NGT Act, 2010, no forest clearance can be challenged before the tribunal till a state government issues an order notifying
Wildlife biologist Milind Pariwakam, applicant before the NGT, challenged the August 2014 ministry order saying it allowed tree-felling and diversion of forest land before final clearance in violation of the FC Act; an executive order could not override provisions of statutory law; stage two (final) clearance was irrelevant since five years would be enough for not only felling of trees at a project site but also completion of the project; and, that it left no room for remedial action.
The tribunal has asked the ministry to file a reply within a week. The next hearing is scheduled for March 11.