BLINK_AMARAVATI10_2587071gForest Department officials and environmentalists are surprised by the development, which if carried through would wipe out about 20 sq km of natural forest.

A fresh controversy is brewing over the way the Centre is planning to clear the “diversion” of a whopping 19,256 hectares of reserve forest area in Krishna and Guntur districts for the new capital, Amaravati. The Andhra Pradesh Government has been lobbying the Centre to clear up green hurdles to make this land available to its urbanisation projects.

However, forest officials and environmentalists are surprised by the development, which if carried through would wipe out about 20 sq km of natural forest. They say this “diversion” would be unprecedented in the country. The proposed clearance comes close on the heels of the acquisition by way of land pooling of a huge 33,000 acres that included large chunks of fertile multi-crop farmland for the greenfield capital, which is ironically being touted as a “blue and green, environment-friendly capital city”.

To justify its desire acquire forest land, the AP Government is invoking Andhra Pradesh State Reorganisation Act and the Forest Department is arguing that there is nothing amiss as 40,000 hectares of alternate land would be afforested in accordance with conservation laws.

But the whole exercise is being viewed with suspicion by environmentalists. They allege that the good political equation between the State and Central Governments is being to put to wrong use to destroy forests at a time when the worldwide trend is to preserve whatever is left.

Sources in the Forest Department say that nowhere in the country or elsewhere has destruction of such massive forest area been allowed, whatever may be its status, or whatever may have been the promises made by the Centre at the time of bifurcation of Andhra Pradesh. Environmentalists point out that the promise made by the Centre of dereserving of forest area or “diversion for non-forest use” (as the Forest Department insists upon calling it) was confined to about 2000 acres of degraded forest if the capital was located there and not to such a large extent of natural forest, some of it home to rich flora and fauna.

Questions are being also being raised over the very concept of compensatory afforestation for the simple reason that no natural forest can be replicated. Further, the ability of the Forest Department to achieve such a gigantic task of taking up plantation in 40,000 hectares runs against its own poor track record. A plethora of instances are being cited that show that afforestation efforts tend to fall short of the state objective: either governments go back on their promise of providing land for afforestation or earmark land involved in legal tangles, or the Forest Department ends up unable to take up full-scale plantation even if it meant poor choice of species.

The “diversion” of forest land is being sought not merely for the capital region but also in respect of reserve forests close to some of the other important towns in the State.

Chief forest officer transferred

In a related development or perhaps merely a coincidence, A.V. Joseph, principal chief conservator of forests, an IFS officer who is known for his commitment to forest and wildlife conservation efforts, has been suddenly shunted out to an innocuous post. Doubts are being raised over his abrupt shifting and there is speculation whether this was the result of his resistance to the move to get more and more forest areas de-reserved. Mr Joseph is the seniormost IFS officer in the State and has service till 2017.