Dr Bharat Jhunjhunwala
FORESTS provide us with varied services like oxygen, biodiversity, timber, fuel wood, grazing, natural beauty, tourism and wildlife protection. One of the reasons of the collapse of the grand Indus Valley Civilization was that our ancestors did not recognize the value of these services. They cut the forests indiscriminately to harvest fuel wood to support their exports of textiles, jaggery and beads. The lands were denuded. Rains fell on barren land and carried the mud into the rivers. As a result, the level of the river bed rose, which led to floods.
And great cities like Mohenjo-Daro were flooded many times over ultimately leading to the collapse of that civilization. The Government has enacted the Forest Conservation Act among other to prevent indiscriminate felling of forests and thus prevent such a disaster striking us again.
On the other hand, cutting of the forests also provides us with many benefits such as mining of coal and minerals, construction of highways and production of hydropower. It is necessary for us to balance the benefits and costs. The Forest Conservation Act, therefore, provides that cutting of forests will be allowed only where the costs are minimal and benefits are huge. There is no gainsaying that application of this principle requires an independent and dispassionate assessment of benefits and costs of cutting of the forests.
I have studied the statement of benefits and costs filed by many hydropower companies under the Forest Conservation Act for obtaining permission to cut the forests. These statements are invariably outright false and misleading. The Tehri Hydro Development Corporation (THDC), for example, has said in its filing that the benefits for every rupee invested in the Vishnugad-Pipalkoti project will be Rs 7.61. First mistake in the calculation of these huge benefits is that future benefits are not discounted to present values. A person has to deposit only Rs 50 today if he wants Rs 100 after six years. The discounted present value of Rs 100 after six years is, therefore, Rs 50. Similarly, the benefit from electricity to be produced after 10, 20 or 30 years has to be discounted to present value. The present benefit from one rupee of electricity produced after 30 years will only be less than 10 paise. THDC, however, has shown benefit of one rupee today for one rupee of electricity that will be produced in future. This is like saying that there is no difference in value of money today and after 30 years.
Second mistake is that gross sales have been shown as benefits. The profit of a business is equal to gross sales minus expenditures incurred. Not so for THDC. In order to mislead the Ministry of Forests, it has shown the total value of electricity produced as benefit. Costs of interest, depreciation and maintenance have not been deducted.
Third mistake is that the many losses to environment have not been factored in. The river carries not only water but life-sustaining sediments. A report by National Environment Engineering Research Institute, Nagpur has concluded that the special self-purifying qualities of water of River Ganga arise from the unique composition of its sediments. The sediments are no longer produced because hydropower projects divert the river into tunnels and friction between rocks and water is eliminated. These sediments also prevent coastal erosion. The Gangasagar Island has been shrinking after the Tehri Dam has trapped substantial amounts of sediments. Secondly, the quality of river water deteriorates because algae and other aquatic life are removed or killed in the turbines. Thirdly, poisonous methane gas is produced from the reservoirs. This contributes hugely to global warming. Fourthly, the natural beauty of the free-flowing river is destroyed and that leads to loss of happiness to pilgrims and tourists. There are other negative impacts as well.
As per my calculation, the benefits from one rupee invested in the project turns out to be mere 13 paise if these errors in the cost-benefit analysis are corrected. This shows that the project is wholly harmful for the country. Yet, the project is beneficial for THDC because it gets the profits from sale of electricity while poor people bear the environmental costs.
The Ministry of Forests has constituted a Forest Advisory Committee (FAC) to examine these issues in detail and recommend whether to allow cutting of forests. Previously, the Ministry had appointed mainly officials to the FAC. Some environmentalists approached the Supreme Court on the indiscriminate permissions being granted by FAC for cutting of the forests. Thereupon the Supreme Court virtually disbanded the FAC and started vetting all proposals for cutting of forests itself. Peeved at this curtailment of its powers, the Ministry agreed to appoint two known conservationists Mahesh Rangrajan and Ulhas Karanth to the FAC. Thereafter, the Supreme Court was satisfied that the FAC was doing its duty properly and it, once again, allowed the Ministry to give permissions based on recommendations of the FAC. This sequence of events shows that appointment of independent persons to the FAC is crucial for preservation of our forests. Left to itself, the Ministry will be trigger happy and allow the forests to be denuded wholly.
The second and most interesting part of the story starts now. Tenure of Shri Rangarajan and Karanth came to an end recently. Thereupon the Ministry replaced them with Shri K P Nyati and Dr N P Todaria. Shri Nyati has been associated with the Confederation of Indian Industry for last 20 years. He has been acting as a liaison officer with the Ministry for various mining companies. He is not ‘independent’ by any stretch of imagination. Dr Todaria has been working for hydropower companies. He had undertaken Environment Impact Assessment of Kotlibhel 1B hydropower project for National Hydro Power Corporation. He had recommended that the project be allowed to go on and forests be allowed to be cut. The Ministry happily accepted his recommendation. However, the National environment Appellate Authority quashed the environment clearance granted to the project by the Ministry. The FAC also rejected his recommendation during reassessment that was ordered to be undertaken by the Supreme Court. This sequence of events indicates that Shri Todaria is happy to kill the environment and forests and cannot be considered to be independent. The Ministry has appointed these persons to the FAC despite these blatantly anti-forest antecedents.
Objective of the Ministry is clear: The natural resources of the country are available to be sold to whosoever greases the palms of the officials. The benefits to fish and pilgrims are not relevant. The erosion of land of the country is not relevant. Global warming is not relevant. All that matters is how much money can the officials of the Ministry make in granting licence to cut forests and destroy the environment of the country.