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

Forest Conservation (Amendment) Bill, 2023 is among the Bills set to be tabled in Parliament's ongoing monsoon session
The amendments to the Forest Conservation Act would affect the ecologically fragile Himalayas. File photo: Vikas Choudhary / CSE
The amendments to the Forest Conservation Act would affect the ecologically fragile Himalayas. File photo: Vikas Choudhary / CSE

This story has been updated.

The monsoon session of the Parliament began on July 20, 2023 and around 31 bills are set to be tabled. One of them is the contentious Forest Conservation (Amendment) Bill, 2023. 

So far, the proposed amendments to the Forest Conservation Act, 1980 have been cleared by the House and four members of Parliament have shared their dissent notes. The Joint Parliamentary Committee (JPC) on the Forest (Conservation) Amendment Bill, 2023, approved all proposed amendments to the principal Act on July 20, 2023.

The Bill has received widespread objections because it brings drastic changes to the definition of forest, its governance and development issues.

The amendment may contradict the Supreme Court of India’s judgment of December 12, 1996 in TN Godavarman Thirumulpad vs Union of India and others case. The SC order held the term “forests” includes recognised areas in government records of any ownership, apart from the term's literal meaning.

The Bill demands fundamental changes by including a preamble and changing the name to Van (Sanrakshan Evam Samvardhan) Adhiniyam, which translates to Forest (Conservation and Augmentation) Act. 

According to the Bill, the Act would only apply to land that was recorded as forest on or after October 25, 1980. Non-forest use land that had been legally diverted between 1980 and 1996 would no longer be under the purview of the Act. 

The clause will threaten the vast stretches of forests across the country, which amount to at least 15 per cent of the unclassified forests. The figures have been taken from a report by the think tank Vidhi Centre for Legal Policy, New Delhi. 

About 39,063 hectares of forest in India are recognised as sacred groves and maintained by local communities, said Neelam Ahluwalia, founder member, Aravalli Bachao Citizens Movement.

“For example, the sacred forest Mangar Bani in Haryana is unrecognised and the amendment will remove protection of such forests,” she said. 

The MoEFCC submission to the JPC acknowledged that the ruling in TN Godavarman case will be violated in some cases, said Chetan Agarwal, an independent forest and environment analyst based in Gurugram.

“In its observations, the ministry noted that all states should have created and declared the respective deemed forest areas. Some states did while the others did not, due to which the misconceptions for identification of a green patch as forest or private  persons planting a forest have risen,” he said.

The comments mentioned that such reasons have led to people giving up agroforestry and the proposition would attract and encourage people to grow trees outside forests.

Agarwal contended that if all the states have not declared green patches as forest, then they may lose their identity by becoming vulnerable to the clauses.

Chandra Prakash Goyal, director general of forests and special secretary to MoEFCC, has supported the change of name during the clause-by-clause examination.

The DG claims the definition of ‘forest’ should be understood literally in accordance with the 1996 judgment and identify them accordingly, said Agarwal.

“If that is the case, the government should not need clarity for the same and make amendments. It should state its position clearly or include a provision in the amended Act stating that the definition of forest and its identification would be made in light of the judgment,” the analyst added.

The other amendments in the Bill include exempting approvals of 100 kilometres of land around international borders for “strategic projects of national importance” or land 5-10 hectares in size. The clearances will be waived off for security and defence projects as an exception from the provisions of the Act.

It would also affect the northeastern states of the country and ecologically fragile Himalayas. The move would threaten biodiversity and endemic species, including flora. 

The amendment Bill further seeks exemptions from forest clearance up to 0.10 hectares along rail lines or public roads owned by the central government.

It also seeks to waive clearances from tree plantations owned by private entities not categorised as forests and use up to five hectares of land for defence or public utility projects.

Such an amendment will axe the rights of scheduled tribes and traditional forest dwellers and threaten their existence, said YS Giri Rao, an activist from Odisha. “The amendments would exempt the government from taking permission from local governing bodies such as Gram Sabhas for clearances,” he said. 

The JPC has received 1,309 memoranda from various stakeholders, including 400 ecologists and 100 retried Indian Forest Service officers expressing their concerns regarding the proposed amendments. The Bill was approved without any changes despite widespread objections on the amendments. 

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