When the Opposition walked out of the house on Wednesday protesting the government’s silence on Manipur’s spreading violence, the treasury benches took the opportunity and quietly passed 3 key bills in the Rajya Sabha. One of them was the contentious Forest (Conservation) Amendment Bill, 2023. It was pushed through earlier in the Lok Sabha by voice vote with no debate.
The changes in the Forest Act are likely to adversely impact our green cover; and, in the long term, our battle to reverse climate change.
There was embarrassing haste in pushing through the new bill. When the amendments were moved this March, it was not referred to the Parliamentary Standing Committee on Science and Technology, Environment, Forests and Climate Change, as it should have been. Perhaps it was because Jairam Ramesh, a Congressman known for his ‘green’ stance, headed the Standing Committee. So the bill went to a special Joint Parliamentary Committee (JPC).
Despite over 1,000 representations received, the JPC did not propose even a single change. Six of the 31 JPC members wrote dissenting notes. There were objections from the Ministry of Tribal Affairs too. But all these were ignored, and the Lok Sabha took just 20 minutes to ram it through.
The Ministry of Environment and Forests’ justification is a lesson in whataboutery. The press note says “afforestation and plantation of trees outside forests is not getting desired impetus” and therefore the amendments are necessary to enhance the green cover and for “creating additional carbon sink of 2.5 to 3.0 billion tons of CO2 equivalent.”
In the name of ‘development’
Tinkering with the Forest Act has to be seen in the context of the rapid degeneration of our green cover. India has lost 668,400 hectares (ha) of jungle between 2015 and 2020, according to a report released in April this year by Utility Bidder, a UK-based utility costs comparison firm. This is the second highest in the world, next only to deforestation in Brazil.
It’s all in the name of ‘development’. Since 2018, the Ministry of Environment has cleared 88,903 hectares of forest land for non-forestry purposes such as roads, mining, laying of railway lines and irrigation projects.
We are paying lip service to battle climate change, but one of the biggest causes of global warming is indiscriminate deforestation. Greenhouse gases, the key element in rising temperatures, are countered by the absorption of carbon dioxide by trees. Nature’s checks and balances are being systematically degraded by humans. As the world stands on the edge of the climate precipice, will ‘development’ have any meaning if there is no planet and no people left to ‘develop’?
In the more precise Indian context, there is the greed to capture virgin forests currently protected by tribal and forest conservation laws. The 80 million hectares of forests, or around 24 per cent of our geographical area, have been out of bounds for profit hunters desperate to open up the rich mineral deposits that lie beneath. There is the Constitution’s Fifth Schedule too which protects tribal enclaves by prohibiting the transfer of land to non-tribals.
Vedanta Resources has fought a losing battle against the Dongaria Kondha tribes for nearly two decades for access to the Nyamgiri Hills, in Odhisa. At stake are the mining rights for huge deposits of bauxite needed for the company’s alumina plants.
Similarly, behind the Meitei-Kuki clash in Manipur, today is the greed to gain access to the hill areas of the state for the valuable minerals they hold. Currently, the Kuki-Zomi and Nagas, though a minority, inhabit 80 per cent of Manipur’s largely forested hills to which access is denied to non-tribals and other interest groups.
A brief look at the amended Forest Conservation Act shows how dangerous it is to ‘forest conservation’. First, it redefines ‘forest’ so that protection can only be extended to those areas notified as ‘forest’ under the Indian Forest Act, 1927. This takes away the protection so far provided for ‘forests’ listed in the government’s revenue records or those areas that satisfy the dictionary meaning of a ‘forest’ ie. an area with abundant trees.
Many eco-sensitive areas like the Niyamgiri Hills are not ‘notified’ forests and may now lose their protection to mining companies.
The amended bill also exempts ‘linear’ infrastructure projects – like roads and highways – from seeking central government clearance if they are located within 100 km of the national border. Likewise, land along the railway lines, or those required for security purposes in dense forests can be acquired and developed without clearance.
To worsen matters, the amended bill gives the right of way to develop non-forest activities like tourism and zoos. These had been resisted for a long as they create a human invasion that ultimately denudes forests.
Environmental scientists have estimated that about 200,000 sq km of forests may lose their protection once the amended bill comes into force. So serious is the concern that more than 400 ecologists wrote to the Ministry of Environment that “this is not just an Amendment but an entirely new Act.”
Unfortunately, who is there to take heed?
Perhaps, only a strong grassroots movement will help us change course.