A Parliamentary committee, set up to examine controversial proposed amendments to the Forest (Conservation) Act, 1980, has endorsed the amendment Bill in its entirety. The Hindu has viewed a draft copy of the report prepared by the 31-member joint committee on the Forest (Conservation) Amendment Bill, 2023 that is expected to be tabled in Parliament ahead of the monsoon session on July 20.
The Bill seeks to amend the pivotal 1980 law which was enacted to ensure that India’s forest land is not wantonly usurped for non-forestry purposes. The Act empowers the Centre to require that any forest land diverted for non-forestry purposes be duly compensated. It also extends its remit to land which is not officially classified as ‘forest’ in State or Central government records.
While the Act has been amended several times in the last few decades — mostly in the spirit of bringing larger tracts of forest-like land under State protection — the latest set of amendments are different. According to the Centre, these amendments are necessary to “…remove ambiguities and bring clarity about the applicability of the Act in various lands.”
Some of the proposed amendments specify where the Act does not apply. Other amendments specifically encourage the practice of cultivating plantations on non-forest land that could, over time, increase tree cover, act as a carbon sink, and aid India’s ambition of being ‘net zero’ in terms of emissions by 2070. The amendments would also remove the 1980 Act’s restrictions on creating infrastructure that would aid national security and create livelihood opportunities for those living on the periphery of forests.
The report states that the joint committee, chaired by BJP MP Rajendra Agrawal, analysed the Bill “clause by clause” and invited representations from 10 Central Ministries, as well as views from Chattisgarh, Maharashtra and Telangana, from experts, individuals, and representatives of public sector units.
‘Diluting’ forest protection
The report notes that objections were raised to various aspects of the Bill, including complaints that the proposed amendments “diluted” the Supreme Court’s 1996 judgement in the Godavarman case that extended protection to wide tracts of forests, even if they were not recorded as forests. The Environment Ministry refuted this point and argued that provisions in the Bill guarded against such situations.
Construction of highways, hydel power projects and other such projects in geographically sensitive areas within 100 km of international borders or the Line of Control will no longer require a forest clearance, an amendment that was “deeply problematic”, a member noted. The Environment Ministry responded that such exemptions were not “generic” and were unavailable to private entities.
There were even objection to the proposal to change the name of the 1980 law from the Forest (Conservation) Act to the Van (Sanrakshan Evam Samvardhan) Adhiniyam, which literally translates to Forest (Conservation and Augmentation) Act. The objections were on the grounds that it was “non-inclusive” and left out “vast tracks of population both in South India and also in the North-East.” Environment Ministry officials defended the name change, saying that it stressed the need to not only conserve but also “augment” forests, and that forest conservation involved much more than according “clearances.”
Opposition from NE States
The amendments were only introduced in the Lok Sabha on March 2023 but a draft copy has been in the public domain, for comment, since June 2022. This has invited opposition from multiple quarters, including some north-eastern States who objected that vast tracts of forest land would be unilaterally taken away for defence purposes. There was also opposition from several environmental groups who said that the amendments removed Central protection from vast tracts of so-called ‘deemed forest’ (forested areas not officially recorded as ‘forests’) and would permit activities such as tourism in these areas, compromising their integrity.
The Lok Sabha moved a motion to refer the Bill to a joint committee, which was seconded by the Rajya Sabha. Jairam Ramesh, Congress spokesperson and chair of the Standing Committee on Science, Environment and Forests, had objected to the Bill being moved to a joint committee instead of the standing committee. The 31-member joint committee has 21 members from the Lok Sabha and 10 from the Rajya Sabha. Of these, 18 belong to the ruling BJP.
‘Forest cover’, in India, refers to land greater than one hectare in size where the tree canopy density is greater than 10%. India’s total forest cover rose to 38,251 sq. km from 2001 to 2021. This increase was mainly in terms of open forest cover, where tree canopy density ranges from 10% to 40%. Forest cover in regions classified as ‘dense forest’ actually decreased during that period. The amendments which encourage plantation cultivation may increase tree cover, but will be unable to stem the loss of dense forests.