Why amendments to Forest Conservation Act raised the heat?
The bill potentially exposes large tracts of forest lands (that fall within the scope of the Forest Conservation Act (FCA), 1980) for the diversion for non-forestry activities, critics point out.
CHENNAI: One of the talking points at the G20 climate and environment ministers meeting that concluded in Chennai recently was the countries’ pledge to restore the degraded forest land. India alone has set a target to restore 26 million hectares of forest land, creating 2.5 to 3 billion tonnes of additional carbon sink. In fact, land degradation, ecosystem restoration, biodiversity and water resources was one of the three thematic priorities of the 4th Environment and Climate Sustainability Working Group.
While these high-level discussions were underway among the Group of 20 largest economies, the Indian government introduced the contentious Forest (Conservation) Amendment Bill, 2023 and got it passed in the Lok Sabha unchanged without any discussion despite receiving hundreds of objections. It was subsequently passed in the Rajya Sabha as well.
The bill potentially exposes large tracts of forest lands (that fall within the scope of the Forest Conservation Act (FCA), 1980) for the diversion for non-forestry activities, critics point out. Among several other bills introduced in the ongoing Parliament session, the Forest (Conservation) Amendment Bill faced fierce opposition ever since its draft was put up in the public domain.
Why is this problematic?
Though the Bill proposes several amendments to the decades-old FCA, the most regressive facet, say activists, is the exclusion of two categories of land from the purview of the Act. One, land recorded as forest before October 25, 1980, but not notified as a forest, and second, land which changed from forest-use to non-forest-use before December 12, 1996. This part is seen as an attempt to subvert the expanded definition of forest that the Supreme Court provided on December 12, 1996, in the landmark TN Godavarman case.
The Supreme Court defined forest land in Section 2 of the FCA to mean that it “will not only include forest as understood in the dictionary sense but also any area recorded as forest in the government record irrespective of the ownership”. The bill takes out those forest lands from the purview of FCA that have already undergone a change from forest to non-forest use on or before December 12, 1996. It also takes out those forest lands that are not notified as forests but were recorded as forests prior to October 25, 1980, usually categorised under “unclassed forests”. Unclassed forests were 12.08 million ha (15.58%) out of the recorded forest area of 77.52 million ha in 2021.
The bill also exempts certain types of land from the purview of the FCA, thereby freeing up those lands from requiring forest clearance for land use change from forest to non-forest. These include forest land within 100 km of India’s border needed for national security projects, which literally covers the whole Northeast that is already bearing the brunt of increasing ‘man-made’ disasters allegedly due to unscientific developmental works.
North-eastern states have the highest proportion of forest cover with respect to their total geographical area and are also biodiversity hotspots. As per the India State of Forest Report 2021, 84.53% of Mizoram’s geographical area is covered by forests, Arunachal Pradesh (79.33%), Meghalaya (76%), Manipur (74.34%) and Nagaland (73.90%).
In Para 4 of the Statement of Objects and Reasons of the bill, the government said there is a need to fast-track the strategic and security-related projects of national importance so as to ensure the development of vital security infrastructures, especially along the international border areas such as the Line of Actual Control, Line of Control and Left Wing Extremism-affected areas.
Ritwick Dutta, environmental advocate and founder of Legal Initiate For Forest and Environment (LIFE), told this newspaper, “The need for fast-tracking does not and should not mean the whole appraisal is done away with altogether. The bill aims to completely exempt all defence and security-related infra from the application of the FCA, which is problematic. Studies on soil erosion, and slope stability among others would still have to be done and would minimise the long-term internal environmental and climatic risk to the strategic and security projects themselves. Our northern international borders are in the Himalayas, a geologically active region. Recent events in Joshimath have shown the importance of proper studies and their careful evaluation to ensure stability in the region.”
Dutta said proposals for the diversion of forest land for non-forest purposes are considered at the State-level Regional Empowered Committee and at the Central level by the Forest Advisory Committee. “Analysis of data over the last many years shows that not a single defence-related project was rejected by the REC or FAC.”
Bivash Ranjan, Additional Director General of Forests, Union environment ministry who was in Chennai for the G20 meeting, declined comment on the bill, but said the risk assessment and environmental impact assessment would continue to remain an integral part of these projects.
No reference to FRA & BDA
The Forest Rights Act, 2006 and Biological Diversity Act, 2002 find no reference either in the text of the bill or the statement of Objects and Reasons. The fact that forests are not empty spaces but areas, where there are rights conferred under the law, finds no reference in the bill. In the past few years, nearly three lakh Biodiversity Management Committees have been set up and are functional. Individual and community forest rights have been conferred on forest-dwelling communities and gram sabhas are mandated to protect and conserve these community forest resources (CFR).
Yet, the bill gives a carte blanche to divert forest on various grounds. There is no recognition of the efforts that might have been put in by communities in protecting and regenerating these forest areas, environmentalists say.
Coimbatore-based tribal activist and researcher C R Bijoy told this newspaper there is systematic dilution of environmental laws, including FCA, FRA and BDA, driven by the interests of capital. In 2009, the Union environment ministry said around 40 million hectares of community forest resources must be transferred under FRA to village-level democratic institutions like gram sabhas. However, as of date, hardly 13% of the ministry’s estimated land has been titled to the gram sabhas.
In fact, the Ministry of Tribal Affairs said, in a submission to the Joint Parliamentary Committee that the government should “please consider inserting a saving clause mentioning that ‘the said definition of forest land will not be in derogation of FRA,’” and that the land on which forest rights have been recognised continue to be considered forest land. But, the bill has no reference to FRA. Activists point out that even the Forest (Conservation) Rules of 2022, which were amended, do not have a proper mechanism to ensure gram sabha consent, since it is required after all clearances are already granted. Last year, when the rules were amended, the National Commission for Scheduled Tribes had asked the ministry to put the rules in abeyance because they did away with previous rules that required authorities to acquire gram sabha consent before a project was sent for clearance.
Forest and tree cover of India in 2021
- Total Forest cover - 7,13,789 sq km
(Incl 4,992 sq km under Mangrove cover)
- Total Forest and tree cover - 8,09,537 sq km
- Very Dense Forest - 99,779 sq km
- Moderately Dense Forest - 3,06,890 sq km
- Open Forest - 3,07,120 sq km
- Tree cover - 95,748 sq km
- Scrub - 46,539 sq km
Features of the amended law
- De-reservation of forest or use of forest land for non-forest purposes. But restrictions may be lifted with prior approval of the Central government
- Non-forest purposes include the use of land for cultivating horticultural crops or for any purpose other than reafforestation
- Activities excluded from the ambit of ‘non-forest purposes’ include works related to the conservation, management, and development of forest and wildlife such as establishing check posts, fire lines, fencing, and wireless communication
- Also excluded from the ambit of ‘nonforest purposes’ are setting up zoos and safaris under the Wild Life (Protection) Act, 1972 in forest areas other than protected areas, eco-tourism facilities etc
Land covered under the act
- Land declared or notified as a forest in accordance with the provisions of the Indian Forest Act, 1927 or under any other law for the time being in force
- Land in government record specified as forest as on or after October 25, 1980
- Land changed from forest use to non-forest use on or before December 12, 1996, by any authority authorised by a state/UT out of its ambit
Land not covered under the act
- Forest land alongside a rail line or a public road maintained by the government, which provides access to a habitation, or to a rail, and roadside amenity up to a maximum of 0.10 hectare in each case
- Forest land situated within a distance of 100 km along the International Border or the Line of Control or the Line of Actual Control, proposed to be used for the construction of strategic linear projects of national importance and concerning national security
- Up to 10 hectares proposed to be used for the construction of security-related infrastructure
- Proposed to be used for construction of defence-related projects or a camp for paramilitary forces or public utility projects, as may be specified by the Central government, the extent of which does not exceed five hectares in a Left-wing extremism-affected area