Parliament Clears Bill to Amend Forest Conservation Act

The bill is restricting the applicability of the Forest Conservation Act to only notified forest land and land identified as forest on government records.

Srajan Girdonia
New Update
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Last week, the Lok Sabha passed a bill to amend the Forest (Conservation) Act, which was originally legislated in 1980 to regulate the diversion of forests for construction and mining activities. The proposed amendments aim to update the Act to align with the country's changing ecological, strategic, and economic aspirations after over four decades. However, the bill has raised several concerns and objections from various stakeholders.

Restricting Applicability to Notified Forest Land

One significant change proposed by the bill is restricting the applicability of the Forest Conservation Act to only notified forest land and land identified as forest on government records. This would exclude forests that were already put to other uses prior to a Supreme Court order in December 1996. Before the order, the Act applied to all land recorded as forest, leading to constraints on development and utility-related work.

In response to objections received by the Joint Committee (JC) of Parliament, the environment ministry assured that the amended Act would still apply to unclassified forests, forests proposed to be notified, land recorded as forest by local bodies recognized by state governments, and forest-like areas identified by expert committees under the 1996 Supreme Court order.

States' Concerns and National Importance

The bill's other major objective is to facilitate fast-tracking projects of strategic importance, national security, and public utility within 100 km of international borders and in areas affected by Left-Wing Extremism. States like Himachal Pradesh and Chhattisgarh sought clearer definitions of "National Importance" and "National Security" to avoid any ambiguity. The ministry stated that qualifying projects would be identified by the defence and Home ministries.

On the other hand, some states expressed concerns about the exemption of 100 km from international borders. Sikkim worried that this exemption would engulf the entire state and open up pristine forest areas for development. They demanded a reduction in the exemption limits to 2 km. The ministry assured that exemptions would not apply to private projects. Meanwhile, the Border Roads Organization (BRO) and Arunachal Pradesh wanted the exemption range to be increased to 150 km to reduce the infrastructure differential with China.

Focus on Plantations and Carbon Sink Enhancement

The proposed bill also encourages plantation activities on private lands to enhance the carbon sink. Currently, developers must undertake compensatory afforestation on equivalent non-forest land or degraded forest land twice the extent of the forest area diverted. The new bill proposes allowing developers to raise plantations on land not covered by the Forest Conservation Act and use them to offset compensatory afforestation requirements.

In June 2022, the government amended the Forest Conservation Rules to introduce this mechanism. The ministry clarified that the bill aims to encourage plantation on non-forest lands by keeping such lands outside the Act's purview. However, some critics raised concerns that this move could potentially exclude 28% of India's forests, approximately 1,97,159 sq km, from the Act's scope.

The proposed amendments to the Forest (Conservation) Act have garnered both support and criticism. While the bill seeks to streamline project approvals and promote plantation efforts on private lands, concerns remain about its potential implications on forest conservation and protection. The environment ministry's assurances to address objections through guidelines have left some stakeholders sceptical, urging for more explicit safeguards within the text of the amendment. As the bill advances through the legislative process, it will be crucial for policymakers to strike a balance between development goals and environmental preservation to ensure sustainable growth for the nation.