Car-for-clearance: REC knew about existence of elephant corridor

The car-for-clearance story as reported by IANS two days ago, has opened up a Pandora’s box on the affairs of the regional offices of the Ministry of Environment, Forests and Climate Change (MoEF&CC).

One, the Regional Empowered Committee (REC) at Guwahati that gave a conditional recommendation to a user agency for a transmission line from a hydropower project on the Assam-Arunachal Pradesh border knew of the existence of the elephant corridor and yet asked for a field inspection report about it.

Second, the demand of a vehicle for recommending forest land clearance or granting forest clearance, it turns out, is a common practice for many such agencies.

The REC Guwahati, an agency under the MoEF&CC, is reported to have asked for a vehicle – and mentioned it should preferably be a Toyota Innova – in lieu of recommending forest clearance for a transmission line through a reserved forest for evacuating power from a hydropower project on the Assam-Arunachal Pradesh border.

And, against the conventional practice of asking beforehand for a study about an elephant corridor in the area from where the diversion of forest was needed, the REC had asked for a post-clearance site inspection report by the Chief Wildlife Warden of Assam. A similar post-clearance site inspection report was asked for from the user agency, Power Grid Corporation of India Limited.

The REC had an ex-officio chairperson and other members apart from an independent expert P C Bhattacharya. “Bhattacharya, who is a member of REC as an independent expert, is from Wildlife Trust of India (WTI) that has brought out the book ‘Right of Passage: Elephant Corridors of India’. So, he ought to know which areas are elephant corridors, which are not. Instead, what are they doing? The REC has approved it first and then asked for an inspection report from the field,” said Ritwick Dutta of Legal Initiative for Forest and Environment (LIFE), a legal advocacy think tank.

When IANS contacted Bhattacharya, he declined to comment.

Experts also raised questions about the demand for a car, that too with a specification of a Toyota Innova. “If the project being discussed is in remote Arunachal Pradesh and you want to monitor that, why do you need a Toyota Innova? This vehicle is an urban vehicle, not suitable for forested areas with an undulating landscape full of sludge and rocky terrain. It is clear that they want it for REC office only,” an expert said adding, “This (asking for a vehicle from a user agency) seems to be the greatest incentive for diversion of forest land. If at all, they could have asked for a patrol vehicle. Basically, whatever was happening earlier unofficially, they have now institutionalized it.”

However, this is not the only example where regional offices have asked for favours from the user agencies. In February 2018, a government team sent to revisit forest clearances for a hydropower project in Arunachal Pradesh’s Lohit district stayed at the guesthouse of the company building that project and it did not even meet the stakeholders.

In Odisha, asking for vehicles is just too common. “Almost all the top end SUVs/Sedans used by officers in Aranya Bhavan, the state headquarters of Odisha Forest Department, are extorted from mining and steel companies when the Principal Chief Conservator of Forest recommends forest diversion. Ostensible purpose is patrolling of Compensatory Afforestation (CAF) plantations while the vehicle roams around inside Bhubaneshwar,” alleged former member of the National Board for Wildlife (NBWL), Biswajit Mohanty.

There has also been a 2015 media report wherein a vehicle used by the then Union Environment Minister was supplied by a user company for a mining proposal.

As per the procedure, the MoEF&CC regional office at Guwahati issues the forest clearance after the REC recommendation.

Sources from the MoEF&CC at Delhi, however, said the Ministry has not yet cleared the proposal. “It is the REC that has given a recommendation. The forest clearance is not yet granted. We will not allow such illegal trade-offs,” the sources said.