Parliament building. (File | PTI Photo)
Parliament building. (File | PTI Photo)

New forest act needs uniform interpretation

Deemed forests are also inhabited by tribal populations, whose fears about their future is not entirely out of place, given the propensity of most governments vis-à-vis development projects.

Controversy continues to trail the Forest (Conservation) Amendment Act, 2023. The latest issue is an executive order from the Odisha government’s Forest, Environment and Climate Change department, which directed all district collectors to formulate forest diversion plans for government projects as per the provisions of the new law, which was ratified by Parliament recently and granted presidential assent. But what raised hackles was that the August 11 order stated the concept of “deemed forest” stood removed under the new Act. Owing to criticism, the state government put the order on hold.

There were two things fundamentally inappropriate with the order. Firstly, it came even before the Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change (MoEFCC) could officially issue the rules and guidelines. Second—and more importantly—was the department’s take on deemed forests. Critics were quick to point out that the MoEFCC had submitted before the joint parliamentary committee reviewing the FCA Bill 2023 that “deemed forests” enjoyed protection in line with the SC’s order in the T N Godavarman case (1996). But the Odisha government’s order wanted to do away with the concept of “deemed forest” itself.

For the time being, the matter appears to have cooled down, but apprehensions continue to linger. This is mainly because the new Act has been, from the very beginning, seen as problematic insofar as the exemptions it provides for are concerned. While the Centre’s fast-tracking of key infrastructure projects on the grounds of strategic reasons and security concerns has been vehemently contested, the issue of deemed forests remains contentious in the absence of clear data in the public domain. Though notified as well as recorded forests will fall under FCA 2023, the exact volume of deemed forests needs more clarity given that the survey was conducted decades ago. Deemed forests are also inhabited by tribal populations, whose fears about their future is not entirely out of place, given the propensity of most governments vis-à-vis development projects.

While it will only be prudent for the state governments to wait for the Centre to issue rules and guidelines under the amended Act, the onus will be on them to offer clarity about these land parcels to allay apprehensions. In such a scenario, it is necessary that the new Act is interpreted in a manner which is uniform. For that, both the Centre and states must not act in haste.

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