This policy update delves into the debates and discussions around the Forest (Conservation) Amendment Act, 2023, seeking to shed light on whether it genuinely serves the purpose of forest preservation or if it inadvertently promotes forest destruction. By scrutinizing its provisions and their implications, we aim to provide a comprehensive evaluation of the act’s effectiveness in achieving its conservation goals.
Environmental laws have historically played a significant role in preserving nature, with a legacy dating back to ancient times, including the Mauryan era when environmental offenders faced legal repercussions. The first legislative measure for protecting forests was The Indian Forests Act of 1865, eventually succeeded by the Indian Forest Act of 1927 during the colonial period, which primarily served British interests. Following India’s independence, mounting concerns about rapid forest depletion led to the enactment of the Forest Conservation (FC) Act in 1980. The Forest (Conservation) Amendment Act, 2023, has been introduced to modify the Forest (Conservation) Act of 1980.
Objectives of The Forest (Conservation) Amendment Act, 2023
- The amendment inserted a preamble to the Act to encompass the country’s rich tradition of preserving forests, their biodiversity, and tackling climate change challenges within its ambit.
- The Act further divides land into two classes under its purview: (i) land declared/notified as a forest under the Indian Forest Act, 1927 or under any other law, and (ii) land not covered in the first category but notified as a forest on or after October 25, 1980, in a government record.
- The Act also exempts all strategic linear projects of “national importance and concerning national security” within 100 km of international borders. It can also be seen promoting activities such as silvicultural operations, construction of zoos and wildlife safaris, eco-tourism facilities, and any other activities specified by the central government.
- The amendment also exempts certain types of land from the provisions of the Act such as forest land along a rail line or a public road maintained by the government providing access to a habitation or to a rail, and roadside amenity up to a maximum size of 0.10 hectare.
- Prior to the amendment, the state government required prior approval of the central government to assign forest land to any entity not owned or controlled by the government. Now with the amendment, this condition is extended to all entities, including those owned and controlled by the government. It also requires that prior approval be subject to terms and conditions as prescribed by the central government. Elimination of ambiguities in the applicability of the Act will facilitate the decision-making process on the proposals involving non-forestry use of forest land by the authorities.
- The amendment shall remove the 1980 Actʼs restrictions on creating infrastructure that would aid national security and create livelihood opportunities for those living on the periphery of forests.
- Changing the Scope of “Forest”– The Act l aims to redefine the legal definition of a ‘forest’ in India, specifying that only lands previously designated as ‘forest’ in official records will be considered ‘forests’ under the new Act. This contrasts with the current Act, which applies to a broader range of forested areas, including those not officially designated as ‘forests’ but meeting the dictionary definition. The amendment eliminates restrictions on commercial activity on land that hasn’t been officially classified as ‘forests’ and removes the current safeguards, such as forest clearance permissions and the informed consent of local communities. This change will notably impact approximately 40% of the Aravalli range and 95% of the Niyamgiri hill range, which is inhabited by the Dongria Kondh, a Particularly Vulnerable Tribal Group. Moreover, there is uncertainty and concern regarding the actual extent of land affected by the amendment since state-wise data on deemed forests is not publicly accessible.
- Exempted Lands – The Act aims to waive the requirement for forest clearance permissions for linear infrastructure projects, such as roads and highways, located within 100 km of the national border. Experts have expressed apprehension because the term “strategic linear projects of national importance” lacks a clear definition, potentially allowing for the approval of infrastructure projects that could have adverse effects on the local environment. This is especially troubling in the Northeastern States, where the exemption would effectively apply throughout most of the region.
- Lack of Consultation – One criticism of the act is regarding the role of the Joint Parliamentary Committee (JPC) which, despite receiving approximately 1,200 representations, including objections from tribal groups, conservationists, environmental lawyers, activists, and citizen groups, did not recommend any alterations to the Bill in its report.
- Jeopardizing Forest Conservation and Indigenous Community– Despite the implementation of the Forest Rights Act in 2006, the opportunity for indigenous and forest communities to provide consent regarding the diversion of forest land for development projects has gradually decreased. Although the Bill claims to address the changing ecological, strategic, and economic landscape of the country while improving the livelihoods of forest-dependent communities, the proposed amendments primarily promote fast-growing plantations to achieve carbon neutrality, thereby restricting the scope of the FC Act.
- Centralized Control – Power is presently concentrated within the central government, as forests fall under the concurrent list, allowing both states and the central government to take conservation measures. States like Nagaland, Sikkim, Mizoram, and Tripura voiced concerns about the provision that grants exemptions to linear projects of strategic importance within a 100-kilometer radius of international borders. This clause would effectively exempt the entire territories of these states from such projects.
The ministry ought to have considered social-economic, cultural, and environmental factors and engaged in consultations with a diverse range of stakeholders, including ecologists, environmental advocates, non-governmental organizations, indigenous communities, and local authorities, before enacting the Bill.
In essence, the central government should embrace a more inclusive approach and encourage local participation. This would result in increased transparency, improved decision-making, and the effective implementation of the regulations and provisions of the Act.
- Lok sabha- report of Joint Committee on Forest (Conservation) Amendment Bill, 2023- National Commission for Scheduled Tribes (NCST)ʼs views not elicited (2023) Countercurrents. Available at: https://countercurrents.org/2023/07/lok-sabha-report-of-joint-committee-on-forest-conservat ion-amendment-bill-2023-national-commission-for-scheduled-tribes-ncsts-views-not-elicited/ (Accessed: 01 November 2023).
- Does bill amending forest conservation act boost Indiaʼs Green Legacy or put it at risk? (no date) Down To Earth. Available at: https://www.downtoearth.org.in/blog/forests/does-bill-amending-forest-conservation-act-bo ost-india-s-green-legacy-or-put-it-at-risk–91039 (Accessed: 01 November 2023).
- The forest (conservation) amendment bill, 2023 (2023) PRS Legislative Research. Available at: https://prsindia.org/billtrack/the-forest-conservation-amendment-bill-2023 (Accessed: 01 November 2023).
- Mazoomdaar, J. (2023) How the forest conservation bill in Lok Sabha trades forests for trees, The Indian Express. Available at: https://indianexpress.com/article/explained/explained- climate/trading-forests-for-trees-8540 990/ (Accessed: 01 November 2023).
- Pardikar, R. (2023) Explained: What will the Amended Forest (Conservation) Act Change?, The Hindu. Available at: https://www.thehindu.com/sci-tech/energy-and-environment/explained- what-will-the-amend ed-forest-conservation-act-change/article67146543.ece (Accessed: 01 November 2023).
Written by Rahul Soni.
Acknowledgment: Author would like to thank Trisha Shivadasan, Priyanka Negi, and Abhisurya Soni for their kind comments and suggestions to improve the article.
Disclaimer: All views expressed in the article belong solely to the author and not necessarily to the organisation.
Posted by Samprikta Banerjee, Research Intern at IMPRI.
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