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Forest (Conservation) Amendment Bill 2023: A New Era or the End for India's Forests?

Activists and conservationists raise alarms over provisions of the Forest Conservation Amendment Bill 2023 that could dilute forest conservation efforts. Potential diversions for urbanisation and unchecked resource exploitation threaten vast expanses of India's natural ecosystems.

By Diksha Puri
New Update

Forest (Conservation) Amendment Bill 2023
Forest (Conservation) Amendment Bill 2023: A New Era or the End for India's Forests? | Photo courtesy: Special arrangement

Last month, the Lok Sabha passed the controversial Forest (Conservation) Amendment Bill 2023. The Bill has drawn flak from forest rights activists and conservationists for some of its provisions that dilute the very concept of forest conservation and afforestation. Forest rights activists say that the new amendment could impact close to two lakh square kilometres of forests in India. We take a look at some of the provisions of the Forest (Conservation) Amendment Bill 2023. Does the Bill truly serve the interests of sustainable development and conservation, or does it pave the way for unchecked urbanisation and the exploitation of India's natural resources?

BK Singh, former Principal Chief Conservator of Forest, Karnataka speaks to The Probe’s Diksha Puri

Will the New Forest Bill Pave Way for Forest Diversion?

BK Singh, ex-Chief Conservator of Forests, Karnataka, states that the opposition to the Bill is based on various points, but the one that concerns him the most relates to the potential diversion of natural forests. "Following this amendment, natural forests could be opened up for diversions for zoos, safaris, and tourism infrastructure, among other activities. This could lead to dire consequences. For example, a few years ago, we observed the construction of a safari at Jim Corbett National Park near the Kalagarh gate. This resulted in the loss of several precious trees. We shouldn't promote activities like safaris and zoos within natural forests. These areas should be regarded as sanctum sanctorum with limited human interference. Encouraging tourism and private investments in such regions could be catastrophic for our forests."

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Manshi Asher, an environmental justice activist states that the new amendments are bound to make some of our prized forest lands lose their legal shield. “The Himalayan states have a vast area classified as forest land. While a significant portion of this is legally classified as forest, there's also a substantial amount that isn't classified. This forest bill exempts unclassified forests or those not recorded under the Indian Forest Act. This implies that if these forests are diverted for non-forest purposes, they won't fall under the provisions of the Forest Conservation Act 1980. Consequently, they won't need to undergo the forest clearance process by the central government. The forest clearance process is a protective legislation that aids in forest conservation and in safeguarding the livelihoods of communities reliant on these forests”.

Exceptions for Projects along India’s Borders

The Forest (Conservation) Amendment Bill 2023 also exempts land situated within 100 kilometres of the country’s borders from the ambit of the Forest Conservation Act 1980. It notes that land located within a distance of 100 kilometres along the international borders or the Line of Control or the Line of Actual Control shall not fall under the provisions of the FCA 1980, as such areas might be proposed for the construction of strategic linear projects of national importance concerning the nation’s security. According to government data, India has an international border spanning 15,106.7 kilometres

This will impact ecologically vital ecosystems like North East India's forests, Ladakh and Spiti's high-altitude deserts, Uttarakhand and Himachal Pradesh's alpine forests, and West India's open scrub and desert ecosystems. Experts say that while natural ecosystems act as buffers against climate-induced unpredictable weather, their degradation leads to several irreversible consequences. The recent floods in the Western Himalayas is one such case which shows how environmental degradation leads to displacement and this inturn increases internal security threats due to infrastructure-induced landslides.

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The Himalayan belt has increasingly become a hotspot for disasters, particularly during monsoon seasons, marking it as a vulnerable zone. “While the global climate crisis undoubtedly impacts this region, it's crucial to recognise that local development and land-use changes often exacerbate the effects of these climatic events. To genuinely bolster resilience and mitigate environmental crisis impacts, meticulous and scientific land-use planning is essential. Engaging the community and ensuring active participation from local state governments in a decentralised approach is far more effective than top-down decision-making,” notes Asher.

Reclassification of Forest Areas 

The Forest (Conservation) Amendment Bill 2023 states that the Forest Conservation Act will only apply to areas recorded as forests in government records on or after 25 October 1980. Debadityo Sinha, Senior Resident Fellow and Lead of the Climate and Ecosystems team at the Vidhi Centre for Legal Policy, says that this potentially invalidates the Supreme Court’s 1996 judgement in the T.N. Godavarman vs. Union of India case. In that case, the court interpreted the meaning of "forest" based on its dictionary definition, thereby expanding the ambit of the Forest Conservation Act.

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“The Godavarman judgement addressed the interpretation and implementation of the Forest (Conservation) Act of 1980, which provides for the conservation of our forests. The case revolved around the issue of diverting forest land for non-forest purposes without obtaining the necessary approvals from the central government. The Supreme Court ruled that the FCA was enacted to protect our forests and that the central government’s approval was essential for any decisions pertaining to the forests; all actions must strictly comply with central law. However, this amendment introduces exclusions. For instance, it proposes that if a state diverted land after 1980 but before 1996, that land would be exempted. How can one legalise such a violation? The Supreme Court judgement didn't suggest overlooking past violations,” Sinha points out

The amendments have weakened the existing Forest Conservation Act, overturning the gains achieved through the Godavarman judgement. They have also been criticised for introducing provisions that diminish the FCA's power, potentially allowing vast expanses of forest lands to undergo conversion to other uses.

“One major concern is the potential privatisation of large forest areas in the name of creating plantations. The emphasis on plantations raises the question: can plantations truly replace natural forests? Historically, our experience with plantations suggests they predominantly consist of non-native species. This changes the forest composition. The survival rate of these plantations is notably low, and they cannot emulate the functions of a natural forest ecosystem. Thus, the most prudent strategy is to protect existing natural forests and facilitate natural regeneration,” asserts Asher.

We are Losing More Forest Cover Year on Year

Up to 1972, forests were considered a state subject. By amending the constitution, forests were brought under the concurrent list. Thus, in 1980, the Forest (Conservation) Act was introduced. Its objective was to check indiscriminate forest diversion for various purposes. 

“According to information provided by the Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change (MoEF) to the Joint Parliamentary Committee (JPC), from 1951 to 1976, almost 41.35 lakh hectares of forestland were diverted for non-forest purposes. After that, from 1980 to 2023, reports indicate that 9.83 lakh hectares of forestland have been diverted. But these figures indicate a pattern,” states YS Giri Rao, Director of Vasundhara, an Odisha-based non-profit working on forest rights.

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Rao adds, “After the promulgation of the Forest Conservation Act, if we analyse the entire data set, from 1980 to 1989, around 1.48 lakh hectares of forestland were diverted. However, from 2010 to 2019, approximately 21,71,841 hectares of forestland were diverted, averaging 2,17,184 hectares per year. Analysing this data suggests that the purpose of the Forest Conservation Act might be defeated. In the last 10 years, the percentage of forestland diversions has been increasing year by year. Comparatively, from 1951-1976, most of the forestland was diverted for mega-projects like dams, with most Indian dams constructed post-independence. But now, a significant amount of land is being diverted for the mining industry”.

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