A Parliamentary committee has given its full endorsement to the proposed amendments to the Forest (Conservation) Act, 1980, The Hindu reported based on a draft copy of the committee's report.
The report, prepared by a 31-member joint committee on the Forest (Conservation) Amendment Bill, 2023, is expected to be presented in Parliament before the upcoming monsoon session on 20 July.
The objective of the Bill is to amend the crucial 1980 law, which was enacted to protect India's forest land from unauthorized use for non-forestry purposes.
The Act empowers the central government to demand proper compensation for any forest land diverted for non-forestry purposes. It also extends its jurisdiction to land that is not officially designated as "forest" in government records at the state or central level.
While the Act has undergone several amendments in recent decades, primarily aimed at increasing the protection of larger forest-like areas under state jurisdiction, the current set of amendments is different.
According to the government, these amendments are necessary to "eliminate ambiguities and provide clarity regarding the application of the Act to various types of land."
Some of the proposed amendments specifically identify situations where the Act does not apply. Other amendments encourage the cultivation of plantations on non-forest land, which could contribute to increasing tree cover, acting as carbon sinks, and supporting India's goal of achieving net-zero emissions by 2070.
The amendments also aim to remove restrictions imposed by the 1980 Act on infrastructure development that would enhance national security and create livelihood opportunities for communities living on the outskirts of forests.
The proposed amendments to the Forest (Conservation) Act, 1980 have faced objections on various grounds, including concerns about diluting the Supreme Court's 1996 judgment in the Godavarman case, which extended protection to extensive forest areas even if they were not officially recorded as forests.
Additionally, objections have been raised about exempting the construction of highways, hydropower projects, and similar endeavors within 100 km of international borders or the Line of Control from requiring forest clearance.
The amendments have also been criticized for not providing central protection for large areas classified as "deemed forest" (forested areas not officially recognized as forests) and permitting activities such as tourism, which may compromise their integrity.
The amendments faced opposition from multiple quarters, including certain northeastern states and environmental groups. Critics raised concerns that the amendments would unilaterally take away vast forest land for defense purposes and remove central protection from "deemed forest" areas, potentially allowing tourism activities that could compromise their integrity.
The joint committee, chaired by BJP MP Rajendra Agrawal, thoroughly analyzed the Bill clause by clause and sought input from ten central ministries, as well as representatives from Chattisgarh, Maharashtra, and Telangana, experts, individuals, and public sector unit representatives.
The committee's report acknowledges objections raised regarding various aspects of the Bill. For instance, concerns were raised that the proposed amendments diluted the Supreme Court's 1996 judgment. The Environment Ministry refuted these claims, asserting that the Bill's provisions address and prevent such situations.
One particularly contentious amendment eliminates the requirement of forest clearance for constructing highways, hydropower projects, and other ventures in geographically sensitive areas within 100 km of international borders or the Line of Control.
Some committee members found this amendment deeply problematic. In response, the Environment Ministry clarified that these exemptions were not applicable to private entities and were not generic in nature.
There were also objections to changing the name of the 1980 law from the Forest (Conservation) Act to the Van (Sanrakshan Evam Samvardhan) Adhiniyam, which translates to Forest (Conservation and Augmentation) Act. Opponents argued that the new name was non-inclusive and excluded significant populations in South India and the North-East.
The Environment Ministry defended the name change, stating that it emphasized the need to not only conserve but also augment forests, as forest conservation involves more than just granting clearances.
Although the amendments were introduced in the Lok Sabha in March 2023, a draft copy has been available for public comments since June 2022. This early availability has led to opposition from various stakeholders.
The Lok Sabha moved to refer the Bill to a joint committee, which was supported by the Rajya Sabha. However, some objections were raised about sending the Bill to a joint committee instead of the standing committee. The joint committee consists of 21 members from the Lok Sabha and 10 from the Rajya Sabha, with 18 belonging to the ruling BJP.
In India, "forest cover" refers to land larger than one hectare with a tree canopy density exceeding 10 per cent. From 2001 to 2021, India's total forest cover increased to 38,251 sq. km.
However, this increase primarily occurred in terms of open forest cover, where tree canopy density ranges from 10 to 40 per cent. The amendments encouraging plantation cultivation may contribute to increasing tree cover but might not address the loss of dense forests.
As you are no doubt aware, Swarajya is a media product that is directly dependent on support from its readers in the form of subscriptions. We do not have the muscle and backing of a large media conglomerate nor are we playing for the large advertisement sweep-stake.
Our business model is you and your subscription. And in challenging times like these, we need your support now more than ever.
We deliver over 10 - 15 high quality articles with expert insights and views. From 7AM in the morning to 10PM late night we operate to ensure you, the reader, get to see what is just right.
Becoming a Patron or a subscriber for as little as Rs 1200/year is the best way you can support our efforts.