Forest (Conservation) Amendment Bill 2023 raises new questions
by Madhurima Bakshi

On March 29, 2023 The Central Government introduced a bill in Lok Sabha to amend the Forest (Conservation) Act (FCA) 1980, which came into force to arrest deforestation and provide for forest conservation. The bill has been sent to the Joint Committee of the Parliament bypassing the Parliamentary Standing Committee on Science, Technology, Environment, Forest and Climate change. The Joint Committee is expected to submit its report with recommendations in the upcoming monsoon session of the Parliament. Earlier on October 2, 2021, MoEF&CC released a Public Consultation Paper and invited comments and feedback on the proposed amendments in the FCA, 1980. Despite several opposition and criticism on the draft paper were raised by the concerned citizens, the present FC Amendment Bill 2023 remains almost like a concise version of that draft which takes a significant portion of forests out of the purview of FCA, considers a number of non-forestry activities as forestry activities, overlooks Forest Rights Act 2006 and Gram Sabha consent and aims to build a more centralized forest governance.  

Redefining Forest

Since the Judgment of the Supreme Court, dated 12th December, 1996, in the matter of T.N. Godavarman Thirumulpad vs. Union of India and others, the provisions enacted in the Forest Conservation Act, 1980 applies clearly on all forests irrespective of the ownership or classification. It covers all statutorily recognized forests, whether designated as reserved, protected or otherwise, also any area recorded as forest in the Government record irrespective of the ownership. Redefining this broad spectrum of ‘forest’, in Clause 1A.(1) of the new Bill, forest lands that are not declared or notified in accordance with the provisions of the Indian Forest Act, 1927 but were recorded as forest prior to 25 October 1980 and the forest which has been changed from forest to non forest use on or before 12th December 1996; both are taken out from the purview of FCA. This attempt to restrict the scope of the SC judgment will lead to diversion of a significant amount of forest lands of the country which was recorded much before 1980, especially during the abolishment of zamindari system. Such forests are easily found in eco-regions of Aravallis, Western Ghats and many other places and known for their rich diversity and ecological services. The Bill clearly states that the objective is to eliminate all those provisions which “restrain the authorities from undertaking any change in the land use and allowing any development or utility related work”. For any project in such forest lands which are now excluded from regulation of FCA, there will be no need to have forest clearance and compliance to Forest Rights act (FRA) 2006. Eventually, the Scheduled Tribes and Other Traditional Forest Dwellers living in those lands will be deprived of their rights of land and livelihoods.

Expanding the Exemption list

Forest land that shall not be covered under the legal purview of the Amended Act, includes forest land alongside a rail line or public road (up to 0.10 hectares), tree plantation or reforestation raised on lands that are not specified (as government land or in government records), forest land situated within a distance of 100 km along the international border, line of control, or line of the actual control area, proposed to be used for construction of strategic linear project of national importance and concerning national security; or up to ten hectares, proposed to be used for construction of security related infrastructure, land proposed to be used for defence projects, public utility projects etc. The exemption provided shall be subject to terms and conditions, including the conditions of planting trees to compensate felling of trees undertaken on the lands, as the Central Government may specify. The Bill categorically cites “a need to fast track the strategic and security related projects of national importance so as to ensure development of vital security infrastructures, especially along the international border areas”. These vague terms rampantly used in more or less every environment or forest related regulations  placed in recent period leave ample loopholes to open forest land for corporate benefits without prior clearance or any liability. The Bill is in accordance with the Central Government’s policies of ‘ease of doing businesses’ where thousands kilometer of ecosensitive zones in border areas of Himalayan, Trans-Himalayan and North Eastern regions, can be taken over by private parties disregarding the bio-geographic values and rights of local indigenous and forest dweller communities. The aim is not restoration of the forest ecosystem but to make forest lands easily available for the corporates. Further, as plantation or reforestation on land which are not specified in government records needs no clearance under FCA, it would facilitate private forests and their commercial use. These actions will only broaden the road of privatization of public resources.

Amending the range of ‘Non Forest use’

The section 2 of the Principal Act has been amended to extend the range of ‘non forest use’. The list of works that are not anymore considered as ‘non forest’ purpose now includes silvicultural operations; establishment of zoo and safaris (owned by the Government or any authority, in forest areas other than protected areas); eco-tourism facilities included in the Forest Working Plan or Wildlife Management Plan or Tiger Conservation Plan or Working Scheme of that area; and any other like purposes, which the Central Government may specify. It also empowers the Central Government to specify the terms and conditions subject to which any survey, such as, reconnaissance, prospecting, investigation or exploration including seismic survey, shall not be treated as non-forest purpose any longer. Silviculture mentioned in this list, in long run can affect the natural ecosystems, threaten native species and degrade soil quality. This amendment also gives full relaxation to the private parties to undertake profitable activities like safaris, zoos, linear projects that are damaging to forests, wildlife as well as the local livelihoods. The model of business oriented ecotourism through exclusionary protected areas has been frequently objected by the environmentalists. Several pertinent questions have been raised regarding the ecological ground of activities like importing wildlife to Madhya Pradesh from Africa or setting up a ‘safari park’ in Haryana as a part of ‘compensatory afforestation’ for a lost Nicobar forest! Also, this amendment in the ‘non forest use’ list would further intensify diversion of forest lands rich in mineral resources and mostly habited by the indigenous communities. There is also ambiguity if change of land use from forest to non-forest can be done without any forest clearance, is the concerned party still accountable to pay the revised Net Present Value or pay for Compensatory Afforestation for the land diverted?

Addressing Climate Justice?

The preamble of the bill claims to enable actions to achieve national targets of Net Zero Emission by 2070, to enhance the forest carbon stocks through ecologically balanced sustainable development, to create carbon sink of additional 2.5 to 3.0 billion tons of CO2 equivalent by 2030 as envisaged by Nationally Determined Contribution targets and to increase forest and tree cover to one-third of its land area. It is to be noted that the carbon stock of the country as recently reported has risen from 6663 million ton in 2011 to 7204 million ton in 2021 which is much lower than this super ambitious target. Moreover, the action plans in the Bill like granting exemptions to numerous projects, designing model to legalize forest land diversion, permitting more ‘non forest’ activities everything goes exactly to the opposite to what is claimed in the preamble. The intention to increase the forest cover rapidly is an attempt to make forest land available for funded plantations in the name of combating climate change and pulling fund for carbon storage. The proposed amendments bear a flawed approach of building carbon stocks focusing mostly on plantations and weaken the significance of protection and conservation of forests and forest rights. As per Indian State of Forest Report 2021, the total forest and tree cover of the country covers 24.62% of total geographic area. States where increase in forest cover and highest forest cover as percentage of total geographical area have been observed are the states inhabited by large populations of tribal communities. Snatching away their rights and allowing such exemptions in the name of climate justice shows nothing but the double standard of the Modi Government.

Centralizing Forest Governance

A new section 3C has been added in the Bill which gives ultimate power to the Central Government to issue directions to any authority or organization under the Central Government, State Government or UT Administration, as may be necessary for the implementation of this Act. The bill aims to ensure centralized power to determine all terms and conditions for all the exemptions, plantation of trees, compensatory afforestation, non forest use etc.

Forest and forest governance has evolved significantly in India since the colonial era. Under the 42nd Constitutional Amendment, forests were included in the Concurrent List, as a subject under Schedule VII of the Constitution. Decolonization and democratization of the forest governance along with community participation is needed today to cope up with climate crisis, loss of forest, biodiversity and livelihoods. The new Bill has aimed for exactly the opposite in order to establish centralized and bureaucratic forest governance. Legislative efforts must aim to ensure a robust and people-centric model for the protection of the environment, forests and traditional rights. On contrary, the neoliberal policy framework of the Government is undermining the regulations and curbing democracy in forest management practices.

Forests and Forest Rights continue to be under attack in Modi regime

The FCA amendment Bill 2023 needs to be seen in the light of the gradual hegemonic control over the forests and serial assaults on nature, natural resources and livelihoods by the Central Government. From diluting EIA Notification to multiple violations of FRA, this Government has made all efforts to weaken and dismantle the environmental and forest regulations in the name of ‘ease of doing business’.

The FRA 2006 created an inclusive and collective framework for forest conservation and management by recognizing both individual and community forest rights of indigenous and forest-dwelling communities. The Gram Sabha became the statutory authority to determine and approve rights; to protect the wildlife, forest, biodiversity and other ecologically sensitive areas; to regulate access to forest resources and prevent activities that adversely affect the wild animals, manage forest and biodiversity in its ‘Community Forest Resource’ (CFR) area etc. The need to take Consent of Gram Sabha was a pre requisite for any kind of forest diversion. This provision of FRA should have been incorporated as amendments in all Forest legislations especially in FCA. Instead of fine-tuning all forest related legislations with respect to FRA, the MoEF&CC continued twisting and violating FRA by issuing orders for the exemption of FRA compliance in various cases to avoid NOCs, purposely pushing FRA compliance to the ‘final stage approval’ instead of ‘in principal stage I approval’ and finally makes it a responsibility of the state governments and not the union government. To make the process of diversion or dereservation of forest land less time consuming and to transfer forest land to private parties without any hindrance, the Forest (Conservation) Rules 2022 were brought which disregards Gram Sabhas, violates forest rights, threaten the forest and forest dwellers in corporate interest.

On one hand, the environmental laws are being relaxed to bestow fast track clearance to the private parties and on the other hand, rules are made less threatening to potential violators. In exchange of ‘compensatory levy’ enumerable forest resources and biodiversity is being lost for which real compensation is never possible. Various Compensatory afforestation schemes are introduced which are literally incapable of replacing centuries-old forests that would have been cut, uprooted and burnt in the name of 'development'.

The anti people ploy of this Government continues in the present FC Amendment Bill 2023. The Preamble of the Bill symbolically mentions about India’s tradition of preserving forests and bio-diversity but deliberately avoids mentioning about Forest Rights Act 2006, Gram Sabha and Panchayats (Extension to the Scheduled Areas) Act 1996 (PESA) even for once and completely disregards economic, social and environmental rights of the forest dependent communities contrary to what is claimed in the Preamble. The broad exemption list has been introduced to ensure more and more diversion of forest land and displacement of the forest dependent communities.

The Forest (Conservation) Amendment Bill, 2023 made without intensive consultation with the stakeholders have been placed to restrict scope of FCA and FRA and to give access of forest land to the corporate by imposing centralized bureaucratic forest governance and suppressing legal rights of the forest communities. FC Amendment Bill, 2023 must be repealed unconditionally!

Forest Amendment Bill