Does Bill amending Forest Conservation Act boost India’s green legacy or put it at risk?

Forest (Conservation) Amendment Bill, 2023 was passed by both Lok Sabha and Rajya Sabha without much discussion

By Mohd Amin Khan, Monika
Published: Monday 07 August 2023
Nagaland was among the states that raised objections to the clause granting exemption to linear projects of strategic significance within a 100-kilometre range from international borders. File photo: Vikas Choudhary / CSE

A contentious Bill proposing amendments to Forest (Conservation) Act, 1980 received the go ahead on August 2, 2023. The amendments raised concerns about potential forest exploitation by private, profit-driven companies or firms and neglection of state governments’ concerns by consolidating more power in the hands of the central government. 

The Forest (Conservation) Amendment Bill, 2023 was tabled in the current monsoon session of Parliament. The Joint Parliamentary Committee (JPC) on the Bill passed all the proposed amendments and the both lower House and the upper House of the Parliament also gave their nods to it recently.

Read more: Reclassifying forests, exemptions from clearances: What changes does Bill to amend Forest Conservation Act propose

It will now be known as the Forest (Conservation and Augmentation) Act 1980

Environmental experts, policy makers, local people and tribal communities had, however, protested against the amendments. The Bill was enacted by the Parliament during the severe political chaos due to communal violence in Manipur and in HaryanaAs a result, it was not discussed much in the Lok Sabha and the Rajya Sabha.

The major amendments in the bill encompass permission for infrastructural development within the 100 km national boundary of the country, construction alongside roads and railway track, along with eco-tourism projects like safaris and zoos within forest areas. 

The Union Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change (MoEFCC) had supported the Bill and made promises to gain the faith of the local stakeholders.

The amendments will enhance forest cover by plantations, combat climate change, ease the creation of national security infrastructure and improve the livelihood of the local people and tribal communities living in close proximity to forest ecosystems, the MoEFCC claimed. 

The state of forest cover, biodiversity richness and the health of the forest ecosystem are dwindling due to the increasing human pressure in the form of infrastructure growth and development in the premises of forest regimes, according to several studies, peer reviewed scientific articles and reports by national and international organisations

In the light of these prevailing problems to the forest ecosystems, the amendments may escalate the pace of forest degradation, local ecology, the livelihood of the local people and ethnic tribals across the country by imposing different rules and regulations. 

Some of these challenges are:

Redefining Forests 

The Bill created a contradiction to the pre-existing definition of forest defined by the Supreme Court of India in a 1996 order, stating any patches of trees recorded as forest in any government records, irrespective of ownership, recognition and classification, would automatically become a deemed forest. 

Approximately one-fifth to one-fourth of India’s forests have lost their legal safeguard due to the modification of the definition under this amendment in the existing Act, according to the Punjab-based Public Action Committee (PAC)

Read more: In Karur, a conservation dilemma regarding the slender loris

Even though these regions are indeed forest, they were not officially designated as such in revenue records. In 1996, the Supreme Court granted them protection under the Forest (Conservation) Act, considering them “deemed forests”. 

However, this protection has now been revoked, leaving extensive forest areas in India vulnerable to exploitation for commercial purposes.

Encroachment through infrastructure development

The amendments also granted permission to the ministries and departments for building basic amenities for infrastructure development — roads and railway track lines — in up to 0.10-hectare area of forests.

In addition, it also allowed the construction of projects related to national security concerns within a 100-kilometre area of the international borders. 

According to environmentalists, these changes in the act will affect the huge forest cover, especially in the northeastern states. A vast forest area can be cleared for infrastructural development under this, which will affect the local ecology, lives and livelihood of the several tribal people of the country.   

Ecotourism development, safaris and zoos in forest premises:

Zoos, safaris and eco-parks are also permitted inside forest areas, which will create a huge pressure on the ecosystem, resulting in a decrease in forest health and disturbing animal movement and their habitats significantly. 

It will also increase the unhealthy competition for the establishment of zoos, safaris, and eco-parks inside the forest premises by private stakeholders and firms. 

The eco-tourism development further requires several other services and facilities, such as infrastructure development to accommodate tourists, roads, hotels and recreational facilities.

These developments would take place at the cost of deforestation, habitat destruction, and disruption of wildlife corridors, which are essential for maintaining the balance of forest ecosystems. 

An influx of tourists can lead to overcrowding in popular ecotourism destinations, putting stress on the natural environment and wildlife. Increased footfall can result in littering, pollution and disturbance of animal habitats, affecting their behaviour and breeding patterns.

Mass tourism can often lead to cultural erosion through the commodification of local cultures and traditions, turning them into mere attractions for tourists. This can result in the loss of traditional knowledge, beliefs and  faiths and practices among tribal communities.

Along with that, the revenue generated from ecotourism may not always be distributed equitably among the local communities. Often, profits end up in the hands of external investors or large corporations, while the indigenous people in or around these areas do not see significant improvements in their standard of living.

Examples of these can be seen in the outer buffer of Kanha Tiger Reserve in Madhya Pradesh, where most of the ecotourism related infrastructure belongs to the private companies of metro cities. The locals and tribals are unable to compete with them and struggle for their livelihood.  

Forest exploitation, tribal livelihoods 

The amendments also increased the possibilities of forest exploitation by giving permission to private and capital-oriented companies or firms to use forest land for ecotourism and the development of other infrastructural facilities for tourist recreation. 

Therefore, it will promote corporate interests to a larger extent and plunder the sources of livelihood of the marginalised, poor and uneducated tribal communities.

Read more: Political representation of STs can lead to improved forest cover — study establishes link

Top-down authority 

Power is also now consolidated in the hands of the central government, because forest comes under concurrent list in which states and Center both can take actions for conserving forest. 

States like Nagaland, Sikkim, Mizoram and Tripura raised objections to the clause granting exemption to linear projects of strategic significance within a 100-kilometre range from international borders. The entire territories of these states would be exempted for such projects under the clause. 

The Mizoram government asserted that any activity falling within the definition of a linear project could be labelled as a project of national importance or strategic significance since all such undertakings, in one way or another, hold national significance. 

Thus, the Bill has given more authority to the Centre, thereby excluding local authorities and communities.

Way forward 

More than 1,300 pleas were filed against the Bill by politicians, public officials, experts, environmentalists, ecologists and tribal activists. These should have been addressed properly by the MoEFCC and government officials. 

A proper debate and discussion should have been conducted in both houses, seeking suggestions and comments of the opposition, to make the Bill more inclusive and acceptable 

A detailed loss and benefit assessment study of the amendments should have been conducted by the MoEFCC to check the ground implementation realities on forest ecology, wildlife and livelihood of locals and tribals. 

The ministry should have taken social-economic, cultural and environmental considerations into account and consulted with a variety of participants, such as ecologists, environmentalists, nonprofits, indigenous people and local governments, before passing the Bill.

In a nutshell, the central government should adopt more inclusiveness and local participation, which will lead to more transparency, better decision-making, and implementation of rules and regulations of the Act.

Mohd Amin Khan is Research Scholar at Indian Institute of Technology, Indore and a Visiting PhD Scholar at Indian Institute Of Remote Sensing, Indian Space Research Organisation; Monika is a Research Scholar at Indian Institute of Technology, Indore and Visiting PhD Student at Boston University Massachusetts, the United States.

Views expressed are the authors’ own and don’t necessarily reflect those of Down To Earth

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