Today's Editorial

Today's Editorial - 22 May 2023

Protections for forests

Source: By SIMRIN SIRUR: The Print

The Forest (Conservation) Amendment Bill — which seeks to amend existing forest protections to “fast track strategic and security related projects of national importance” — was introduced in the Lok Sabha amid protests, and referred to a joint parliamentary committee before it could be discussed.

The bill proposes changes in the Forest (Conservation) Act of 1980 — a law that prohibits non-forest activity in forest areas without prior clearance from the Ministry of Environment, Forests, and Climate Change. It seeks to do this by making exemptions for certain projects, while also redefining the kinds of forest areas under which the law would be applicable.

The amendment bill has been referred to a joint committee comprising 19 Lok Sabha members and 10 Rajya Sabha members.

But an expert said the proposed changes could lead to a dilution of the law, eroding the protection afforded to India’s forests under the Forest (Conservation) Act of 1980.

Rajya Sabha MP Jairam Ramesh, a former Union minister for environment and forests, called the committee “one-sided,” and said the government had undermined the role of the Standing Committee on Science and Technology, Environment and Forests, of which he is chairman. 

Changing forest land

The Forest (Conservation) Act of 1980 is a straightforward law that imposes restrictions on the use of forest land for non-forest purposes. Till 1996, the law applied to forests notified by the Indian Forest Act of 1927.

But in December 1996, the Supreme Court ruled in the T.N. Godavarman case (T.N. Godavarman Thirumulpad vs. Union Of India & Ors) that it would apply to all pieces of land that resembled the “dictionary meaning” of forests, including any “deemed” forests recorded as such in any government records, irrespective of ownership.

Under the Forest (Conservation) Act, any projects that would lead to the diversion of forest land must apply for forest clearance first. The amendment bill wants to “remove ambiguities” surrounding the applicability of the law, and restricts which types of forest land it will apply to, thereby seeking a return to the pre-1996 position on forests. In addition to this, the proposed bill also seeks to extend protection to “deemed” forests, but only for those recorded after 25 October, 1980.

In the proposed law’s statement of objects and reasons, Minister for Environment, Forest and Climate Change Bhupender Yadav says thechanges were necessary because the Godavarman order was “restraining the authorities from undertaking any change in the land use and allowing any development or utility related work” in deemed forest areas.

The changes have drawn criticism from an environmental expert, who believes that they would pose a threat to the country’s forest cover.

DebadityoSinha, a senior resident fellow at the Vidhi Centre for Legal Policy, an independent think tank, tweeted that the amendment will “threaten a significant area of forest land in the country”, especially those areas which were recorded in government records as forest in the 1850s to the 1970s.

“A large chunk of such transferred land could not be notified under Indian Forest Act or the state forest legislations because of improper demarcation & corruption in the previous administration,” Sinha said in a series of tweets. “The T.N. Godavarman order safeguarded further degradation of such ‘recorded forest’ by bringing them under the purview of FC Act.”

Exemptions for railways, ‘strategic’ projects

The bill proposes to exempt 0.1 hectares of forest land along railway lines and public roads from the forest clearance process, as well as linear projects such as roads within 100 km of the Line of Control or the Line of Actual Control, which are considered of “national importance and concerning national security”.

Apart from linear projects, the bill makes exceptions for security infrastructure of up to 10 hectares, as well as “defence-related projects”, camps, and public utility projects of up to 5 hectares in Left-Wing Extremism-affected areas.

“There is also 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 Line of Control and Line of Actual Control and Left Wing Extremism areas,” the bill says, adding, Similarly, small establishments habitations on side of public roads and railways also need to be facilitated by providing them access and connectivity to main arterial roads and public utilities. The bill also makes it easier to carry out afforestation on non-forest land.

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