The Forest (Conservation) Amendment Bill, 2023, that is being deliberated upon by a Joint Committee of Parliament, is a contentious piece of legislation that signals the complex challenges involved in balancing industrial development and the conservation of forests. While industrialisation inevitably means usurping greater tracts of forest land and ecosystems, the Forest (Conservation) Act, 1980 has been the mantelpiece legislation that has empowered the state to regulate this and impose costs on such industrial exploitation. Originally meant for notified forests, a landmark Supreme Court judgment, in the T.N. Godavarman Thirumalpad case (1996), among other things, broadened the scope of such protection to even those not officially classified so. India’s forest cover has seen only marginal increases, as biennial reports of the Forest Survey of India illustrate. Growth in forest cover inside officially recorded forests is stagnant, or at best incremental. It is tree cover in orchards, plantations and village homesteads that has been on the rise and supplementing India’s claim that 24% of its area is under forest and tree cover. India has committed to increasing this number to 33% and adding a carbon sink of 2.5 billion to 3 billion tons of carbon dioxide this way, by 2030, as part of its international climate commitments.
The existing Forest (Conservation) Act, 1980 — in the Environment Ministry’s reckoning — was insufficient for these ends, as it did not incentivise private agro-forestry and tree plantation activities. From 2019 to 2021, India added 1,540 square kilometres of forest cover of which 1,509 sq. km was outside recorded forest area. The new amendments to the Forest Act gave such incentives by clearly defining the limits of the 1996 judgment. Only land recorded as ‘forest’ in any government record on or after 1980 would invoke provisions of the Act. Forest land authorised by States for non-forestry uses between 1980-1996 would not invoke provisions of the Act. The amendments effectively mean States can no longer classify unclassified forest land, or patches of trees with forest-like characteristics as ‘forest land’. The amendments also allow forest land, up to 100 km near India’s borders, to be appropriated, without central approval, for “strategic and security” purposes. The primary criticism is that these amendments do not really contribute to regenerating natural forest, but rather incentivise afforestation for commercial ends. What is worrying is that the parliamentary committee, despite its statutory privileges, has not expressed any opinion or suggestion on the way forward. Grooming private forests might look good in theory but expecting them to be a permanent carbon stock is wishful thinking given that strong market incentives exist to use them as ‘carbon credits’. While new climate realities might necessitate changes to the way conservation laws are interpreted, these must be backed by rigorous scientific evidence.