The highly controversial Forest (Conservation) Amendment Bill 2023 is awaiting debate in the Rajya Sabha after having been passed by the Lok Sabha with almost no debate in June. Broadly, the Bill seeks to restrict the conservation scope of the Act to only certain forest lands. It also exempts border lands from the obligation to seek permissions to clear forests in order to construct “strategic linear projects of national importance”. Finally, it also allows some non-forest activities on forest lands, like running zoos and ‘eco-tourism’ facilities.
The Bill was introduced in the Lok Sabha in March. Thereafter, it was referred to a Joint Parliamentary Committee (JPC) comprising 32 members from both Houses of Parliament and across party lines. Rajendra Agrawal, the Bharatiya Janata Party MP from Meerut, was the Chairperson of the JPC.
How does the Bill restrict the scope of the Act?
The Bill’s principal thrust is that it redefines what a ‘forest’ is in Indian law. It stipulates that only those lands that were notified as ‘forest’ under the Indian Forest Act 1927, any other relevant law or were recorded as ‘forests’ in government records will be acknowledged as ‘forests’ under the Act as well.
This revision stands in stark contrast to the wide applicability of the extant Act at present – i.e. it applies to “any forest land”. A Supreme Court judgement in 1996 had reiterated such a broad application. It said, inter alia, that a ‘forest’ includes all land recorded as such in government records regardless of ownership as well as “deemed forests”, which are not officially classified as ‘forests’ but satisfy the dictionary meaning of the word: any large area with significant tree cover and undergrowth.
The Supreme Court had also asked States to undertake an exercise to identify and notify their own deemed forests. But even after almost 30 years, many states are yet to complete this exercise. In cases where they have, we don’t know how scientific the process of identification was.
As such, the amendment opens up all land that hasn’t been officially classified as ‘forests’ to commercial activity. It also removes the checks and balances the Act currently includes, in the form of forest clearance permissions and the informed consent of the local community.
The areas that stand to be affected in a significant way include about 40% of the Aravalli range and 95% of the Niyamgiri hill range; the latter is home to the Dongria Kondh, a Particularly Vulnerable Tribal Group. Many experts are also uncertain, and thus apprehensive, about the actual extent of land that will fall outside the purview of the amended Act considering the State-wise data of deemed forests is not publicly available.
Why is the exemption for border infrastructure controversial?
The Bill seeks to exempt linear infrastructure projects – like roads and highways – from seeking forest clearance permissions if they are located within 100 km of the national border. Experts have raised concerns because “strategic linear projects of national importance” is an undefined term and can thus be misused to push through infrastructure projects that are devastating for the local ecology.
This is of particular concern in the Northeastern States, where the exemption would apply de facto almost across the region. Many BJP-ruled states in the region disputed the 100-km exemption during the JPC’s consultation process. On the one hand, Nagaland asked for a variable distance for exemption, given its small size and location within the Indo-Burma biodiversity hotspot, and Tripura wanted it to be reduced to 10 km. On the other, Arunachal Pradesh asked for the range to be increased to 150 km.
Did the JPC flag any concerns with the Bill?
First: this Bill was not referred to the relevant Parliamentary Standing Committee, which in this case would have been the Standing Committee on Science and Technology, Environment, Forests and Climate Change, headed by Congress MP Jairam Ramesh. Per the Pre-legislative Consultation Policy, it is considered good practice – though not mandatory – to refer Bills to Standing Committees for review. But the government bypassed this oversight function in the case of the Forest (Conservation) Amendment Bill 2023.
Second: The JPC did not propose a single change to the Bill in its report despite receiving around 1,200 representations – including objections from tribal groups, conservationists, environmental lawyers, activists, and citizen groups.
Six members of the JPC itself wrote dissent notes. The Ministry of Tribal Affairs also raised concerns with the JPC about the amendment’s implications on community rights enshrined in the Forest Rights Act 2006, according to the final JPC report.
A document accessed by this writer showed that, during consultations, the JPC accepted the Union Environment Ministry’s inadequate justifications for the proposed amendments and even responses that were not related to the question that had been asked, raising concerns about the integrity of the parliamentary process.
The Bill got a free pass in the Lok Sabha as most Opposition MPs were focused on highlighting the violence in Manipur. It was set to be debated in the upper house at the time this article went to press. Debate or no, the Bill’s drastic break from the longstanding legal definition of ‘forests’, its focus on creating carbon sinks (instead of the Act’s aim to conserve existing forests) , and the uncertainty over its coverage don’t bode well.
Rishika Pardikar is a freelance environment reporter based in Bangalore.