Calcutta, June 11: Chief minister Mamata Banerjee today “stripped” the forest department of its authority to give the go-ahead to tourism projects in forest areas, apparently after receiving complaints that it was creating hurdles in the implementation of eco-tourism projects.
At a co-ordination meeting with the tourism and forest departments, the chief minister proposed a board to give clearance to eco-tourism projects in forest areas. The board will have officials from the forest, tourism, fisheries and panchayat departments and could be headed by a retired bureaucrat, sources said.
Senior government officials feared that the ecological balance of the state could be affected if the board cleared projects without assessing their environmental and ecological impact.
“The proposed board will have the authority to clear eco-tourism projects. Till now, the forest department had the power to clear such schemes,” said an official who attended the meeting.
Officials at Nabanna told The Telegraph the chief minister had received several complaints that the forest department was not “helping” the tourism department in carrying out eco-tourism projects, some of which were the chief minister’s pet schemes.
“According to the complaints lodged with the chief minister, the forest department was delaying approval to set up a hotel at Jharkhali in the Sunderbans and a resort in Jalpaiguri’s Gajoldoba on the banks of the Teesta. The chief minister was not happy with this,” an official said.
The chief minister yesterday transferred Subesh Das, the secretary of the forest department, to the Administrative Training Institute, apparently annoyed at the “conflict” between the forest and tourism departments.
“Why are you negative on all the issues? I have heard that the Forest Act permits non-forest activities on 20 per cent of forest areas. Allow tourism projects on this 20 per cent area,” the chief minister was quoted as telling Das.
Senior government officials said the forest department did not want to issue no-objection certificates for eco-tourism projects in the Sunderbans and the Dooars in a hurry as it did not want to violate any rule.
“In the Sunderbans, the tourism department has been allowed to build a hotel. The permission had got delayed as the project required a clearance from the Union ministry of environment and forests under the Coastal Zone Regulation Act. The forest department issued the clearance last month following pressure from Nabanna. I don’t know whether it has been cleared under the Coastal Zone Regulation Act,” said a senior state forest department official.
The tourism department had plans to set up a project in Sylee, Jalpaiguri, which falls in an elephant corridor.
“I have heard that the project was also given clearance in a hurry under severe pressure. I guess this would face a legal challenge as there are strong laws to protect wild animals,” another official said.
The move to get rid of the “hurdles created by the forest department” by setting up a board may not help the government achieve its target, officials said.
“You cannot bypass the forest department if a project is undertaken in a forest area. Central laws on environment and forests give the forest department the authority to clear such schemes. Files have to be routed through the forest department and permissions cannot be given overnight,” another official said.