The Joint Committee of Parliament reviewing the Forest (Conservation) Amendment Bill 2023 is set to table its report during the upcoming monsoon session which begins on July 20 amid concerns from environment experts.
The Bill amends the Forest (Conservation) Act, 1980 to make it applicable to certain types of land. Minister of Environment, Forest and Climate Change, Bhupender Yadav, introduced the Bill in the Lok Sabha on March 29, 2023. According to the Statement of Objects and Reasons of the bill, the government is trying to prevent misinterpretation of the provisions of the FCA, with respect to the recorded forest areas.
As per a report by The Hindu, the Parliamentary committee set up to examine the controversial proposed amendments to the FCA 1980, has endorsed the amendment Bill in its entirety, despite objection from north-eastern States that vast tracts of forest land would be unilaterally taken away for defence purposes.
Forest Bill introduced
Environment Minister Bhupender Yadav introduced the amendment bill in Lok Sabha with an aim to bring clarity to the country's forest conservation law and exempt certain categories of lands from its purview to fast-track strategic and security-related projects of national importance.
The bill was then sent to a joint committee of both the Houses for discussion. The committee consists of 19 Lok Sabha members, 10 Rajya Sabha members and two members to nominated by the Lok Sabha speaker.
Objectives of Forest Bill
The bill exempts certain forest lands including those within a distance of 100 km along international borders or Line of Control (LOC) proposed to be used for construction of strategic linear project of national importance and concerning national security. Other exemptions include forests situated alongside a rail line or a public road maintained by the government and tree plantations on private lands that are not categorised as forests.
One of the major objectives of the bill was to remove ambiguity around the Supreme Court’s December 12, 1996 judgement in TN Godavarman Thirumulpad vs. Union of India and others where the apex court directed that “forests” will not only include forest as understood in the dictionary sense, but also any area recorded as forest in the government record irrespective of the ownership.
Concerns around Forest Bill
As the bill exempted certain forest lands from the FCA, environment experts fear that clearing such forests without any assessment and mitigation plan will threaten the biodiversity of the region.
According to a report by Vidhi Centre for Legal Policy, significant forests in Himalayan, Trans-Himalayan and North Eastern regions, which are rich with endemic biodiversity will be exempted due to the amendment because of their proximity to international borders. "This will increase the vulnerability of the ecologically and geologically sensitive areas, which are already threatened by unsustainable infrastructure developments and extreme weather events," the report said.
Additionally, the amendment also proposes to redefine the ambit of “non-forest purpose” exemptions under section 2 of the FCA. This allows enumerated activities to be carried out on the forest land without prior approval of the central government. The latest amendment includes ‘silviculture’, the establishment of a zoo/safari, ‘ecotourism facilities’ included in the Forest Working Plan/Wildlife Management Plan/Tiger Conservation Plan; or ‘any other like purposes’ ordered/ specified by the Centre, under the ambit of "non-forest purpose".
"Using terms like ‘proposed’, ‘ecotourism facilities’, and ‘any other purposes’ are too vague and can be exploited or misused for activities damaging forests and ecosystems in forest lands," the report said.
Environmentalist and former member of the Western Ghats Task Force B.M. Kumaraswamy earlier said that the proposed provisions would prove detrimental to forests. “The proposed law intends to change the definition of forest. We have court rulings that say one should go by the dictionary definition of forest to define a particular area as forest. However, the Bill states that only those lands that have already been registered as forests under the existing laws shall be treated as forests. Vast hectares of deemed forest and other kinds of area will no longer remain as forest if the proposed law is passed,” he said at a press conference.
Further, he said that all these years, clearance from the Central government was mandatory to take up any non-forest activities in the forest area. However, the proposed law would remove it and allow non-forest activities, including tourist activities and zoos, among others, in the forests. “Such activities will disturb the forest and end up bringing down the total green cover,” he said.
Meanwhile, frightening visuals emerged from North India which is witnessing an intense rainfall spell. Parts of Himachal Pradesh witnessed major landslides and flash floods on Sunday. Fourteen major landslides and 13 flash floods were reported in the past 36 hours.