Lok Sabha passes Forest Conservation (Amendment) Bill

The Bill was passed unchanged, after a JPC dismissed objections that it diluted forest protection measures; it will encourage plantation cultivation and ease the creation of national security infrastructure

Updated - July 27, 2023 12:37 am IST

Published - July 26, 2023 10:34 pm IST - NEW DELHI

Tribal and forest dwellers during a demonstration against the Forest Conservation (Amendment) Bill in Bhubaneswar. File

Tribal and forest dwellers during a demonstration against the Forest Conservation (Amendment) Bill in Bhubaneswar. File | Photo Credit: ANI

Amidst pandemonium, the Lok Sabha passed the Forest Conservation (Amendment) Bill on July 26, without any changes from the version first introduced on March 29. The contentious Bill was introduced to amend the Forest Conservation Act, 1980.

The 1980 legislation has empowered the Centre for the last four decades, to ensure that any forest land diverted for ‘non-forestry’ purposes is duly compensated. It extends its remit to land even beyond what is officially classified as ‘forest’ in State and Central government records.

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The amendments made by the Bill now passed by the Lok Sabha include clauses that specify the types of land where the original Act is inapplicable. The amendments encourage the practice of cultivating plantations on non-forest land, which can increase tree cover over time, act as a carbon sink and aid India’s ambitions of having ‘net zero’ carbon emissions by 2070. They also seek to remove restrictions imposed by the Act in creating infrastructure that would aid national security and create livelihood opportunities for those residents on the periphery of forests.

‘Dilutes’ forest protection

Objections were raised on various aspects of the Bill when it was first introduced, prompting a Joint Parliamentary Committee (JPC) to investigate it threadbare. Nearly 1,300 representations from a multitude of groups — including tribal rights groups and independent think-tanks — were sent to the JPC, objecting to clauses of the Bill. However, as The Hindu reported on July 10 July, these objections were deliberated upon but ultimately dismissed by the JPC.

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There were objections that the amendments “diluted” the Supreme Courts 1996 judgement in the Godavarman case that extended protection to wide tracts of forests, even if they were not recorded as forests. There were objections to the Act’s new name — Van (Sanrakshan Evam Samvardhan) Adhiniyam, translated as Forest (Conservation and Augmentation) Act, instead of the existing Forest (Conservation) Act — on the grounds that it was “non-inclusive” and left out many among the “(non-Hindi speaking) population both in South India and also in the North-East.” There were also objections that large parcels of forest land near the borders would no longer be protected.

‘Better infra for soldiers’

“We have made provisions in the Bill that would enable our soldiers stationed in sub-zero temperatures at Ladakh to access better roads and infrastructure,” Environment Minister Bhupender Yadav said in reply to questions raised in Parliament on the Bill. “Despite our attempts to improve social forestry, people are hesitant to plant private plantation for fear that the forest laws will prevent them from cutting those trees. India is an importer of timber… We have made changes, via this Bill, to improve agro-forestry,” he added, noting, “This Act will be a milestone one for India.”

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