Rajya Sabha passes Forest Conservation (Amendment) Bill amid confusion, concerns

Rights to recognise forest land and register it to lie with the state government, clarifies environment minister

By Himanshu Nitnaware
Published: Wednesday 02 August 2023
The amendments give exemption for clearances up to 100 kilometres from international borders for “strategic projects of national importance”. File photo: CSE__

The contentious Forest (Conservation) Amendment Bill, 2023 was passed by the Rajya Sabha August 2, 2023 after a brief debate on concerns and questions on the Bill by members of the Parliament. 

The Lok Sabha had cleared it a week ago on July 26, 2023

The Bill will now be known as Van (Sanrakshan Evam Samvardhan) Adhiniyam, 1980, which translates to Forest (Conservation and Augmentation) Act. 

Prashant Nanda from Biju Janata Dal (BJD), Odisha was among the MPs who raised concerns over the Act. Odisha has the third largest tribal population in the country, with 62 diverse indigenous tribes that includes 13 vulnerable ones. It became the first state earlier this year to allocate an exclusive budget for the Forest Rights Act. 

Read more: Name change of Forest Conservation Act imperative, as it is treated as ‘Forest Clearance Act’: DG forests

The proposed amendments in the Bill posed a problem for the tribal population as they have contributed to increasing forest cover by 1.04 per cent through a bottom up approach to governance, said Nanda. 

He posed questions over the dilution of deemed forest areas and asked if new changes do not affect the categories of land notified as forest land or waiting to be notified. 

Nanda also raised concerns that the compensatory afforestation conducted geographically in another place does not offer the same ecosystem services such as water and clean air as the natural forest. 

Sushil Kumar Modi from Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), Bihar said as the forest clearance time duration has been shortened to 180 days, the new amendments should be able to further speed up the forest clearances. 

Parliamentarian Niranjan Reddy from Yuvajana Sramika Rythu Congress Party (YSRCP), Andhra Pradesh expressed fear that the blanket exemptions for national interests such as the development of strategic infrastructure must not open floodgates for forest lands. 

The law will operate for years to come irrespective of the immediate government or the current environment minister, said Reddy. The provisions for relaxations for which the guidelines and directions to be issued by the government should be strict and only land required for the clearance must be given from forests, he said.

He urged forests and public interest be maintained and not violated at any point in the future. 

The members also presented views on protecting the interests of tribals. Kamakhya Prasad Tasa from BJP, Assam said that development should not enable commercialisation on forest land and the amendments should protect the interests of tribals as they depend on the forest. 

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

Hishey Lachungpa from Sikkim Democratic Front (SDF) shared that defence infrastructure and pilgrim sites must be avoided as they affect biodiversity and natural reserves.

V Vijaysai Reddy of YSRCP demanded clarity on whether the new amendments granting rights of assignment of forests that were earlier with the state government have been transferred to the central government.

Speaking on the issue of changing the name of the forest in Hindi, M Thambidurai from All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (AIADMK), Tamil Nadu said that many people from TN do not know the Hindi meaning of the bill like many other central government schemes and hence find it difficult to take benefits. He demanded the name of the bill should be released in multiple regional languages for each state.

GK Vasan from Tamil Maanila Congress (Moopanar) asked how the change in the name of the bill will improve conservation. He also questioned on what grounds the zoo, safari and ecotourism be considered as forestry. 

Vasan also demanded that the provisions in compensatory afforestation should not compromise Compensatory Afforestation Fund Management and Planning Authority or CAMPA funds. 

Replying to the queries, the environment minister Bhupender Yadav said the new amendments are being done to provide infrastructure and facilities to forest dwellers where the development cannot reach. 

He said, “The applicability of the Act in various types of lands has been dynamic that is., initially provisions of the Act were being applied to the notified forest land only. Subsequently, after the judgement dated December 12, 1996, the Act was made applicable to revenue forest land or to lands which were recorded as forest in government records and to areas, which look like forest in their dictionary meaning.”

“Many of such lands were already put to non-forestry use such as habitations, institutions, roads, etc. with the required approval of the competent authority. This situation resulted in different interpretations of the provisions of the Act with respect to their applicability specially in recorded forest lands, private forest lands, plantations, etc,” the Union minister claimed.

The new amendments will not affect any of the reserved forests or national parks, Yadav added.

Read more: Forest act amendments will help India achieve Net Zero emissions targets: MoEFCC in joint committee report

The minister claimed that the SC order opened flood gates as the FCA was hastily prepared and there was no definition of forest. The issue created problems in developing basic infrastructure such as schools, bathroom in revenue recorded forest areas.

Yadav justified the name change as a way to get freedom from colonial words and bring more use of classic languages. He welcomed the suggestion of recognising the Act in various regional languages.

The rights to recognise forest land and register will continue to lie with the state government and the central government will have no role to play in the matter, he further said

The provision of including zoo, ecotourism and safari in forestry category is to help locals provide an ecosystem for income generation using their experience and knowledge, Yadav added.

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