Forests up for grabs?

The amended Forest Conservation Act opens up large swathes of forestland for different non-forest activities

Illustration: Yogendra Anand & Infographic: Pulaha RoyOn August 4, Parliament passed the controversial amendment to the Forest Conservation Act, 1980, a move that experts warn opens the floodgates for ecological disasters.

Since its inception, the 1980 Act, brought in to regulate the use of forestland for non-forest activities, has undergone eight amendments.

The current amendment, though, completely overhauls the Act for the first time by not just changing its name but also opening up large swathes of forestland for different non-forest activities. Most importantly, it narrows the definition of forests in the country.

While Union environment minister Bhupender Yadav says the exemptions will bring development to tribals and forest-dwelling communities, the fundamental changes to the Act will have a far-reaching impact on forest conservation in the country.

Reluctant to change

The Centre set the ball rolling on October 2, 2021, when it released a consultation paper inviting comments from the public within 15 days from the date of issue.

On July 28, 2022, it issued a draft document of the proposed amendment.

Eight months later, on March 29, 2023, the amendment Bill was introduced in Lok Sabha, where it was referred to a joint parliamentary committee.

On July 11, the committee approved all the amendments even after receiving dissent from over 400 environmental groups and retired Indian Forest Service officials. The final report by the committee notes that it received 1,309 memoranda and six dissenting notes from Members of Parliament.

In a letter sent to all Parliamentarians, a group of 105 former forest officers alleges that the Centre passed the Bill in a way that ensured minimum discussions.

“Procedurally, the Bill should have been referred to the Parliamentary (Standing) Committee on Science, Technology, Environment and Forests, instead of being referred to a Select Committee, all the members of which, except one, belong to the ruling party, making the examination partisan and unsatisfactory,” reads the letter.

On July 26, the Lok Sabha passed the Bill after 15 minutes of discussion, and on August 4, it became an Act after the Rajya Sabha passed it.

Cause for concern

There are several amendments in the new Act that have created a stir among ecologists, Parliamentarians and other stakeholders.

People have, for instance, questioned the decision to change the name of the Act to Van (Sanrakshan Evam Samvardhan) Adhiniyam, which translates to Forest (Conservation and Augmentation) Act.

One of the objections to the name is that it excludes non-Hindi speaking citizens of the country. People have raised eyebrows over the inclusion of the word samvardhan or augmentation as it goes against the spirit of conservation, which has been central to the Act.

The fundamental concern is that the amendment, under the garb of clarifying what constitutes as forest, limits the scope of the Act. This is being done in multiple ways.

Prior to the amendment, the Act was applicable to all land covered under the dictionary meaning of forests, as ordered in a 1996 Supreme Court judgement in the Godavarman Thirumulpad v Union of India case.

The dictionary definition meant the Act was applicable to areas that are recorded as green cover in government books but are not explicitly called forests. These include sacred groves and many community forests.

According to the amendment, only land recorded by the government as forests on or after October 25, 1980, will be required to abide by the Forest Conservation Act.

It adds that the Act will not apply to “such land, which has been changed from forest use to use for non-forest purposes on or before” December 12, 1996, “in pursuance of an order, issued by any authority authorised by a State Government or an Union territory Administration in that behalf”.

“The amendments are contrary to the National Forest Policy, 1988, the policy framework for forest management, and is also inconsistent with the original mandate of the Forest Conservation Act,” says Neema Pathak Broome of Pune-based non-profit Kalpavriksha.

“States have always been reluctant to declare a deemed forest, which consists of forest-like areas or traditionally protected lands, as forests. After the Godavarman verdict, such forests were safeguarded. Now, they are vulnerable again,” says Debadityo Sinha, senior resident fellow and lead for climate and ecosystems at Delhi-based think tank Vidhi Centre for Legal Policy.

Complete overhaul

How the amended law dilutes Forest Conservation Act, 1980

  • The name has been changed to Van (Sanrakshan Evam Samvardhan) Adhiniyam, which translates to Forest (Conservation and Augmentation) Act
  • A preamble has been added which talks about the need for forests to achieve the country’s carbon neutral status by 2070
  • The Act is applicable only to land that has been recorded by the government as forests as on or after October 25, 1980
  • Forest clearances no more required for security-related projects in forests within 100 km of international borders
  • In non-border areas, land up to 10 ha (five ha in areas affected by left-wing extremism) can be used for defence-related projects, and public utility projects
  • The Act has also exempted non-forest activities such as agro-forestry plantations, zoos, safari parks and ecotourism from taking environmental clearances

In 2011, the Supreme Court had asked all states and the Centre to identify forestland using the dictionary meaning of the word. “The Union environment ministry had even prepared guidelines for the same. Still, several states, including Haryana, Uttarakhand and Bihar did not finish the process. What will happen to the land in these states?” asks Sinha.

C R Bijoy of the Campaign for Survival and Dignity, a national coalition of forest dwellers’ organisations, says, “The current amendment will benefit corporates more than the country.”

Forests are already being diverted by state governments illegally for mining. This Act will make such actions legally valid, says Sharachchandra Lele, distinguished fellow at the Ashoka Trust for Research in Ecology and the Environment, Bengaluru.

Visible dilutions

Besides restricting the definition of forest, the amendment also allows development for different activities in existing forests. For instance, forest clearances are no longer required for security-related infrastructure projects that lie within 100 km of international borders.

These areas can be used for “construction of strategic linear project of national importance and concerning national security”. Several border states, including Sikkim, Mizoram, Tripura and Himachal Pradesh registered their opposition to this exemption to the joint parliamentary committee.

“The Northeast, one of the most biodiversity rich areas of the country, has already lost 3,199 sq km of forest areas between 2009 and 2019. The Act will make the region vulnerable to further loss of forest cover,” says Ravi Chellam, wildlife biologist and conservation scientist, CEO, Bengaluru-based think tank Metastring Foundation & Coordinator, Biodiversity Collaborative.

Down To Earth’s analysis shows how the move leaves many biodiversity hotspots vulnerable. “The phrase ‘strategic linear project of national importance’ can mean anything,” says Ritwick Dutta, founder of Delhi-based think-tank Legal Initiative for Forest and Environment.

In non-border areas, forestland up to 10 hectares (ha) can be used by the Centre for defence-related projects and public utility projects.

Similarly, forestland situated alongside a rail line or a public road, which provides access to a habitation, or to a rail, and roadside amenities up to a maximum size of 0.10 ha in each case and such tree, plantation or reafforestation raised on lands that are not specified as forest under the new definition.

“The exemptions on forestland for certain types of activities will make way for exploiting and misusing the provisions. The requirements of site-specific impact assessments and surveys that used to happen earlier acted as buffers or compelled officials to find alternatives for such development. The process will become more of an administrative procedure than a scientific approval,” says Broome.

The Act has also exempted non-forest activities such as agro-forestry plantations, zoos, safari parks and ecotourism from environmental clearances.

This is in clear violation of a Supreme Court order this February that stayed all construction within core areas of national parks.

The court was hearing a matter over illegal constructions in tiger reserves and the establishment of a tiger safari in the buffer area of Corbett Tiger Reserve in Uttarakhand.

The exemptions under the Act are given on the condition that the diverted forestland will be compensated for with the planting of trees elsewhere in the country.

But tree planting cannot be a substitute for forests. “Now zoos and safaris will not be treated as ‘non-forest activities’ and this will lead to a cumulative impact of constructing buildings, roads, power transmission lines, vehicular movement, and light and noise pollution for zoos and safaris,” says Sarvadaman Oberoi, an environmentalist from Gurugram.

He adds that Haryana plans to make a zoo safari on around 4,000 ha in the Aravalli range in Gurugram and Nuh. “Such projects will become more common,” he says.

A senior state forest officer, requesting anonymity, admits that the current “clarification” only creates divisions of forest.

“The new amendments do not offer an exact definition of what will be treated as forest in the country. It just says what all is exempted,” the officer says.

Left in a quandary

The new Act will most likely erode the rights guaranteed to indigenous and forest-dwelling communities over forests.

Under the Scheduled Tribes and Other Traditional Forest Dwellers (Recognition of Forest Rights) Act, 2006—or the Forest Rgihts Act, 2006—the consent of gram sabhas is essential for getting environmental clearance for any project. If such land is not recognised in government records as forestland, then developmental projects might not even need a clearance anymore.

“If the definition is adopted from the Forest Rights Act, then the rights of the people will be secured. If the new definition is adopted, then their existence is threatened,” says Y Giri Rao of Odisha-based non-profit Vasundhara.

“The Act has raised concerns about the ownership of local forestland where special provisions such as the Sixth Schedule and Article 371 help to protect community land ownership and cultural practices,” says Pia Sethi, senior fellow at Dehradun-based non-profit Centre for Ecology Development and Research.

In Nagaland, for example, communities are perplexed as to whether Article 371 A of the Indian Constitution, which protects their customary practices and land ownership patterns, will continue to provide them with protection from forest diversion under the new Act.

Like community forests, the fate of many other forest categories remains unclear. “The Act does not clarify what will happen to land classified as chhote jhaad ka jungle or small forest,” says Lele.

Question of carbon

The latest amendment has inserted a preamble to the Act that talks about the role of forests in achieving the national goal of “Net Zero Emission by 2070” and the creation of a carbon sink of an additional 2.5 to 3.0 billion tonnes of carbon dioxide equivalent by 2030.

The government claims that exempting forest-like regions would see more investment in plantations and other tree cover, which will in turn, improve carbon sink capabilities.

But experts and environmentalists contest that the provisions in the amendments completely contradict the spirit of the preamble and conservation of forests. Dutta explains that the new amendments have reduced the Act to a mere carbon sink creation activity.

“In a pursuance of fulfilling a commitment to create carbon sinks, the Act demolishes India’s commitment under the Convention on Biological Diversity goals of in-situ conservation, of new land, indigenous rights, equitable sharing of benefits and protecting biodiversity,” he says.

This was first published in the 16-31 August, 2023 print edition of Down To Earth

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