In the preamble to the Forest (Conservation) Amendment Bill, 2023, introduced by the Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change (MoEF&CC) in the Lok Sabha on March 29, it is stated that the importance of forests must be realised to achieve India’s target of Net Zero Emission by 2070 and to maintain or enhance the forest carbon stocks through ecologically balanced sustainable development.
The draft Bill, however, has run into criticism from conservationists for exempting key forest areas from the purview of the Forest (Conservation) Act (FCA), 1980, and expanding the scope of projects under “forest purpose”.
The FCA came into force in 1980. Its aim was to restrict the diversion of forestland for agricultural or commercial purposes and to protect the multiple ecological components thereof. The Act sought to regulate the use of forestland for “non-forest purpose”, which was defined as the breaking up or clearing of any portion of a forest for cultivation of tea, coffee, spices, rubber, palms, oil-bearing plants, horticultural crops, medicinal plants, or for any purpose other than reafforestation, with the exception of the establishment of checkpoints, fire lines and wireless communication network, and the construction of fencing, bridges and culverts, dams, waterholes, trench marks, boundary marks and pipelines.
The proposed amendments exempt certain categories of land from the purview of the FCA. These include forestland alongside a rail line or a public road maintained by the government to an extent of 0.10 hectares, forestland within a distance of one hundred kilometres along international borders or the Line of Control or the Line of Actual Control for strategic linear projects of national importance, forestland of up to ten hectares proposed to be used for security-related infrastructure.
K. Kalidasan, president of Osai, a Coimbatore-based environmental organisation, said the FCA was a key law that helped to safeguard forest cover across India. “From 1950 to 1980, when the Act was passed, 4.3 million hectares of forest cover was lost. Since the law came into force, the loss of forest cover has reduced significantly,” said Mr. Kalidasan.
Questioning the exclusion of 0.10 hectares alongside roads and railway lines from the Act, he said, “How this exclusion zone will be measured remains a huge question; we anticipate that many wildlife habitats will be severely threatened.”
The MoEF&CC also widened the range of activities and projects that can be carried out in forestland. Some that have warranted criticism are silviculture operations, ecotourism facilities, establishment of zoos and safaris, and “any other like purposes, which the Central Government may, by order, specify”. Environmentalists have raised concerns over the ambiguity of the phrases and said the Bill could lead to dilution of forest protection.
A conservationist from the Nigiris was puzzled by the “haphazard phrasing” of the exclusion of areas near roads and railways. “I wonder if the road is widened on this principle one year, then if it can again be widened the next, as it would have expanded and the forest boundary would be moved back by 0.10 hectares. If this is the case, then roads can be interminably expanded over multiple projects,” said the conservationist.
Mr. Kalidasan said the exemption of ecotourism from being a non-forest activity is extremely worrying. “The term, ecotourism, itself is very vague and hard to define. Under the guise of ecotourism, any commercial activity can come up, impacting elephant corridors like the notified Sigur elephant corridor,” he said.
Potential loss of biodiversity
The exemptions proposed in the Bill are subject to certain conditions, including planting of trees for compensating the loss of forestland. While compensatory afforestation is aimed at keeping the extent of forest cover the same after diversion of forestland, planting of trees is only a substitute and cannot be the same as forests, said Balaji Srinivasagopalan, a retired Indian Forest Service (IFS) officer.
Referring to the clause exempting forestland near a railway line or a public road, Mr. Srinivasagopalan said this would lead to increased fragmentation of forests, restrict the movement of wildlife, and affect the overall biodiversity. Particularly in the case of elephants, which are migratory, problems might occur as they did near the Coimbatore-Palakkad rail line, where a number of elephant deaths were recorded in the last few years, he said.
“Though the amendments are ostensibly being made so that India becomes carbon-neutral by 2070, the amendments will allow for any tree planting to be done in forests,” said Mr. Kalidasan. He added that there was a big difference between what constitutes a “forest” and a “green cover.”
“If the amendments to the Act are passed, grassland in the Nilgiris, as well as marshes and even desert ecosystems, could be under threat from tree planting. This is incredibly dangerous as each landscape is unique and any alteration through tree planting will affect biodiversity in niche habitats, like the Shola-grassland mosaic ecosystems in the Nilgiris,” he said.
Exclusion of seismic survey
In the ‘Consultation Paper on Proposed Amendments in the Forest (Conservation) Act, 1980,’ circulated to the State governments in October 2021, the MoEF&CC said it considers “new technologies — such as Extended Reach Drilling to enable exploration or extraction of oil and natural gas deep beneath the forestland by drilling holes from outside the forest areas and without impacting the soil or aquifer that supports the forest in the forestland” — as environment-friendly and proposed to keep the use of such technologies outside the purview of the FCA.
However, in the latest Bill, the MoEF&CC skipped any mention of the technology and has said, “Any survey, such as reconnaissance, prospecting, investigation or exploration including seismic survey, shall not be treated as non-forest purpose.” A seismic survey is the underground exploration of petroleum, natural gas, and mineral deposits.
“How can drilling for oil and natural gas be for ‘forest purposes’,” questioned Vetriselvan Muthuraj, advocate, Poovulagin Nanbargal. He pointed out that there are several forest landscapes in Tamil Nadu that could be taken advantage of as removing oil exploration from the scope of non-forest purposes will also remove any level of checks and balances. “Kalrayan Hills in Salem and several areas in the Western Ghats, including Kanniyakumari district, are all susceptible to misuse,” he said.
Furthermore, the consultation paper had noted that “there is a strong resentment in the Ministry of Railways, the Ministry of Road, Transport & Highways, etc. for interpretation of the scope of applicability of the Act over the right of way (RoW) of railways, highways, etc.,” as spontaneous trees that grew in the leftover land acquired for these projects also come under the FCA. This required the landholding agency to pay stipulated compensatory levies for use of such land, which had originally been acquired for non-forest purposes.
Official sources said that in response to the paper released by the MoEF&CC, the Tamil Nadu government stressed that if land is required for railways or other infrastructure projects, the process can be simplified and fast-tracked as opposed to bringing in an amendment. Responding to the provision that exempts work ancillary to conservation, development and management of forests and wildlife (ecotourism, zoo, etc.) from the purview of the FCA, the State said the move could lead to misuse of forests.
“The State maintained its position that the FCA should not be diluted. It was informed to the Union Ministry that the FCA has served well to protect ecology and biodiversity and an amendment is not required,” said an official.
Side-lining of gram sabhas
Besides the potential exploitation of forestland and distress to wildlife, activists said the Bill further sidelines local communities living near forests. The Forest Rights Act (FRA), 2006, empowers gram sabhas and forest dwellers to protect wildlife, forest, and biodiversity. “For a project to get forest clearance, the consent of gram sabha is needed as per the Forest Rights Act. This amendment completely takes away the rights of tribal communities and the need for their consent,” said Mr. Muthuraj.
According to M.S. Selvaraj, State convener of the Vivasayigal Thozhilalargal Munnetra Sangam (VTMS), the exemptions in the Bill take large chunks of forests out of the purview of the FCA. The VTMS, along with the Campaign for Survival and Dignity and other organisations, has submitted a list of suggestions to the Joint Committee on the Bill, calling for gram sabhas to be granted the statutory authority to grant Stage I in-principal approval for all projects for forest diversion for non-forestry and afforestation projects. They argue that only by empowering local communities through the implementation of the FRA can the remaining forests be preserved and protected.
“India has a rich tradition of preserving forests and their biodiversity, and therefore, enhancing forest-based economic, social and environmental benefits,” states a part of the preamble in the Bill. However, questions have risen whether the provisions of the Bill, if brought into effect, will strengthen the integrity of Indian forests.
(With inputs from Rohan Premkumar in the Nilgiris)