Large stretches of key forests may be exempted in new Act.
The focus of the bill is to ensure areas of strategic importance for the country are exempted from the purview of the Forest Conservation Act.
Large stretches of forests along the international borders in Himalayan states including the northeast; primary forests in parts of Central India; and forests with unclear records such as the Aravallis in Haryana may all be exempted from prior forest clearance for projects under the Forest Conservation Amendment Bill 2023, environmentalists and activists said.
The bill was referred to a select committee of Parliament on Wednesday, prompting protests that it should ideally have been referred to the concerned standing committee.
One of the major provisions of the bill is to cover only land that has been declared or notified as a forest under the Indian Forest Act, 1927 or under any other law. Forest land that is not protected under the Indian Forest Act but has been recorded in any government record as forest as on or after the 25th October, 1980 will continue to be covered under the Forest Conservation Act and hence diversion of these lands would involve obtaining prior forest clearance. But, vast areas that may have been classified as forest in government records prior to 1980 will now be exempt from the FC Act, environmentalists said.
The other major concerns are that the bill exempts forest land: situated within a distance of 100 km of an international borders or Line of Control or Line of Actual Control proposed to be used for construction of strategic linear project of national importance and concerning national security; up to 10 hectares proposed to be used for construction of security related infrastructure (doesn’t mention where); that is to be used for a defence related project or a camp for paramilitary forces or public utility projects, as may be specified by the Central Government, the extent of which does not exceed 5 hectares in a left-wing extremism affected area.
The bill is also silent on forests identified as per dictionary meaning of the word or deemed forests. One of the objectives of the bill is to remove any ambiguity around the Supreme Court’s December 12, 1996 judgement in TN Godavarman Thirumulpad vs. Union of India and others case where it directed that “forests” will not only include forest as understood in the dictionary sense, but also any area recorded as forest in Government records irrespective of the ownership.
“The title of the Act is Forest Conservation Act. The title also has been changed a bit now to “Van (Sanrakshan Evam Samvardhan) Adhiniyam. No project with strategic importance is ever rejected so the fact that because of FC Act you cannot divert land is a misplaced idea. So, the FC Act was essentially ensuring that there is some scrutiny and certain conditions are prescribed that are needed to mitigate the damage that is caused. Now, once they are exempted from forest clearance also means there will be no safeguards,” said Ritwick Dutta, an environmental lawyer.
He added that by not mentioning the provision on the dictionary meaning of forest, the bill runs contrary to the 1996 order of the Supreme Court. “ There are essentially three definitions of forests—areas notified as forests under Indian Forest Act and other laws; areas recorded as forest in any government record and the third area that meets dictionary meaning of forests. This was also highlighted in SC judgement on Aravallis. This bill does away with the third category now.”
That 1996 ruling provided “teeth” to the Forest Conservation Act, 1980, according to Debadityo Sinha, Lead- Climate & Ecosystems, Vidhi Centre for Legal Policy. This, he added, “ played the most significant role in preventing further damage to the forest areas across the country for decades. Especially because much of the forest areas we see today are not government notified, and they exist as ecologically and wildlife rich forest areas of Aravalli, Central Indian forests, Western Ghats, etc. By limiting the scope of the Act to only those forests recorded on or after 25th October 1980, the government has made all such forest tracts vulnerable to exploitation for mining, power generation, resorts, farmhouses, safari zones and whatever one can imagine.”
The 1996 ruling also protected areas that were not notified or recorded as forests but were forests of natural origin, explained Chetan Agarwal, an environmental analyst.
“This category has provided succour and protection to many big and small natural forest patches. In this context the silence of the draft amendment text and its objects and reasons on ‘forest as per dictionary meaning’ is .”
“As the Bill has been introduced in the Parliament, no comments please,” said a senior official of the environment ministry.