The hornets’ nests in the Forest Amendment Bill

The operative part of the Bill shows little connect with the Preamble, excluding entire categories of forest from the ambit of the law, and even facilitating their destruction

July 28, 2023 12:08 am | Updated 01:42 am IST

‘The Bill excludes some of India’s most fragile ecosystems as it removes the need for forest clearances for security-related infrastructure up to 100 km of the international borders’

‘The Bill excludes some of India’s most fragile ecosystems as it removes the need for forest clearances for security-related infrastructure up to 100 km of the international borders’ | Photo Credit: Getty Images/iStockphoto

The Lok Sabha passed the Forest (Conservation) Amendment Bill, 2023, on July 26, with no substantive changes from the original version introduced in March. It ignores strong public objections that highlighted a number of concerns. The Bill commences with a promising Preamble, expressing a commitment to achieving net zero emissions by 2070, creating a carbon sink, increasing forest cover, and improving the livelihoods of forest-dependent communities. However, the operative part of the Bill shows little connect with the Preamble. Instead, it excludes entire categories of forest from the ambit of the law and, ironically, even facilitates the destruction of forests.

The problem areas

The Forest Conservation Act of 1980, which this Bill aims to amend, admittedly and justifiably adopted a rather protectionist stance which made forest clearances time consuming and costly to obtain. While current development needs and priorities must be recognised, this Bill deviates in a significant manner from the spirit of the original law. Three points that emerge from the Bill have caused considerable consternation among environmental experts: the narrowed definition of forests under its scope; the exclusion of significant tracts of forest areas; and the granting of sanction to additional activities that were regulated earlier. These need to be better explained.

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The Bill will significantly restrict the application of the landmark Godavarman judgment of 1996 which had extended the scope of the 1980 Act to the dictionary meaning of ‘forest’ — that is, areas with trees rather than just areas legally notified as forest. The present Amendment restricts the Forest Conservation Act to only legally notified forests and forests recorded in government records on or after October 25, 1980. This change could potentially impact around 28% of India’s forest cover, encompassing almost 2,00,000 square kilometres. While these forests include fruit orchards and plantations, they also encompass forests of exceptional quality and conservation value. An instance is the category of Unclassed Forests in Nagaland, that have so far not been officially recorded or deemed forests despite centuries of protection and use by autonomous clans. Perversely, States that have refused to identify important forest areas despite the Godavarman judgment, may now be free to allow the destruction of these forests for construction and development. For the same reason, large swathes of the Aravalli Hills in the Delhi National Capital Region which are considered ecologically significant, apart from being critical to the water security of this region, may be affected by the amendment.

Second, the Bill excludes some of India’s most fragile ecosystems as it removes the need for forest clearances for security-related infrastructure up to 100 km of the international borders. These include globally recognised biodiversity hotspots such as the forests of northeastern India and high-altitude Himalayan forests and meadows.

Third, the Bill introduces exemptions for construction projects such as zoos, safari parks, and eco-tourism facilities. Artificially created green areas and animal enclosures are very different from natural ecosystems which provide a bouquet of ecosystem services that contribute significantly to human well-being. What is worrying is that the Bill also grants unrestricted powers to the Union government to specify ‘any desired use’ beyond those specified in the original or amended Act. Such provisions raise legitimate concerns about the potential exploitation of forest resources without adequate environmental scrutiny.

Disenfranchising forest people

Another important concern is that the Bill makes no reference to other relevant forest laws. For instance, the Scheduled Tribes and Other Traditional Forest-dwellers (Recognition of Forest Rights) Act, 2006 finds no mention. Instead, the exclusion and ease of diversion of forest areas will mean that forest people’s institutions no longer need to be consulted. This is not just a matter of equity. In neighbouring Nepal, the handing over of forests to local community forest user groups is credited to have helped the country increase its forest cover from 26% to 45% over just three decades. If India is to meet its net zero carbon commitments and increase forest cover (as the Bill envisages in its Preamble), it would be wise to further the participation of forest people, rather than disenfranchise them.

Exclusions that raise eyebrows

The system of forest clearances under the FCA (1980) may have been flawed but this Bill does little to rectify these deficiencies. Instead, it just excludes certain privileged sectors from its ambit. When democracy’s gears grind a little too slowly, it is better to fix them than to dismantle them. These systems provide an essential check to assess the impact of projects which change land use and to mitigate the impacts resulting from environmental destruction.

Yes, exceptions are needed. The objective of fast-tracking strategic and security related projects is a fair ask. Administrative processes can and should be speeded up and needless delays in environmental clearance avoided. However, giving blanket exemptions from regulatory laws is not the answer. The importance of India’s natural ecosystems must be valued. India’s northern borders, where exemptions will perhaps be most used, are framed by the geologically active Himalaya. Recent events in Joshimath (Uttarakhand) have shown the need for proper geological and environmental assessments for all development projects.

Forests and other natural ecosystems cannot be considered a luxury. They are an absolute necessity.

Rajesh Thadani is a forest ecologist. Ravi Chellam is CEO, Metastring Foundation and Coordinator, Biodiversity Collaborative

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