Forest (Conservation) Amendment Bill, Conservation or Green-washing?

Environmentalists are not convinced that the contentious Forest Amendment Bill passed by the Parliament after a brief debate in Rajya Sabha amid continuing din in the House, has anything to do with conservation of forest. Rather they fear dilution of the present Act.

Forest (Conservation) Amendment Bill, Conservation or Green-washing? Source: Himalayan News Chronicle

By- Asha Ramachandran

On August 2, the Parliament brushed aside all objections to pass a controversial Bill to amend the Forest (Conservation) Act (FCA), 1980, triggering a growing concern among environmentalists of rampant diversion of forest land for non-forest use as well as usurping the rights of indigenous communities.

The Bill ostensibly seeks to amend the 40-year-old Act, which was enacted to ensure that the country’s forest land is not wantonly usurped for non-forestry purposes. FCA was originally enacted to regulate industrial uses for forested land, such as mining or hydropower, and to put a price on such exploitation. It empowers the Centre to ensure that any forest land diverted for non-forestry purposes is duly compensated. It also extends its ambit over land, which is not officially classified as “forest” in State or Central government records.

Introducing the Bill, the government said the proposed law is the need of the hour. It said the ecological, social and environmental regimes and policies relating to conservation and development of forests had undergone a change since the enactment of the original Act, 40 years ago. It would thus be in tandem with the current changes in the ecological, strategic and economic aspirations of the country.

The Bill states that FCA will only apply to areas recorded as forests in government records on or after October 25, 1980. Activists pointed out this will invalidate the Supreme Court’s 1996 judgement in TN Godavarman vs Union of India and others. Another pressing issue is to fast-track the strategic and security- related projects of national importance in order to ensure development of vital security infrastructures, especially along the international border areas such as Line of Actual Control, Line of Control and Left-Wing Extremism affected areas. And so, the country’s forest land may be opened up for diversion as the Bill exempts forest land within 100 kms of India’s national borders from the purview of the Act to fast- track construction of strategic and security- related projects.

This land will be exempted from seeking clearances from the Centre. A Joint Parliamentary Committee, set up earlier this year to examine the proposed amendments to the Act, had on 9 July endorsed the Bill in its entirety after setting aside all objections. Government also said the final Bill was brought after being considered by the Joint Parliamentary Committee. The Bill is among the many proposed legislations that further the Union environment ministry’s goal of promoting “ease of doing business”. It already lauds its decisions that reduced the time taken to provide environmental clearances for projects from 105 days to close to 75 days.

Environmentalists point out that forests have always been seen as dispensable resources that can be cleared for development purposes, be it infrastructure, industry or housing. But such plans do not take into consideration the environmental impact and the consequences, which can be disastrous. Take, for instance, the massive floods and huge landslides witnessed in recent times.

Another instance is the subsidence of Joshimath, which is clearly a result of such mindless deforestation and development. Add to that climate change and you have a natural disaster on hand. Thus, the pressing need is to prevent such disasters by conserving the remaining natural forest cover. “Government should be  more  receptive to specialist inputs,” notes a conservation architect. “This would avoid situations such as those confronting our hill states and almost all of north India now – deforestation in the mountains, rivers in spate, unplanned cities flooded. Even the slopes that are the watershed of Sukhna Lake are getting deforested and targeted by real estate, leading to the kind of situation in Chandigarh. Working together is the best way forward.” 

Green-washing: According to a News18 report, the Bill also gives blanket exemption to specific activities that can be carried out in forests such as establishing check posts, fencing and bridges as well as running zoos, safaris and eco-tourism facilities. Zoos and eco- tourism is definitely not the kind of conservation we need. The government may also prepare terms and conditions for taking “surveys such as reconnaissance, prospecting, investigation or exploration including seismic survey,” out of the definition of “non- forest purpose”.

Another key point that concerns experts is the Bill’s encouragement for plantation on non-forest land over natural forests as part of climate action. India has committed to increasing the forest or tree cover for the creation of carbon sinks for an additional 2.5 to 3.0 billion tonnes of CO2 equivalent by 2030. This requires more plantation activities.   According to the ministry, it was important to bring more clarity and clear certain apprehensions regarding plantations raised in private and government non-forest lands. The government says it is broadening the horizons of the Act but conservation experts are not convinced.

Opposition voices: Listing out those contesting the amendments, The Third Pole noted that these include government opposition party members, ex-Indian Administrative Service and Indian Foreign Service officials, and environmentalists and activists, for a variety of reasons. Asad Rahmani, the former director of the Bombay Natural History Society, told The Third Pole that skipping government or court approval for development projects in forests that lie within 100 kilometres of India’s national border is “very dangerous”. 

Rahmani points out that “a large portion of our country will come within 100 kilometres of the border.” India’s borders stretch to 15,106.7 kms across and its coastline covers 7,516.6 kms, including island territories. Kanchi Kohli, who researches legal issues and policies, and is the author of Development of Environmental Laws in India told The Third Pole, that the amendments fail to see the bigger picture: “While the political security concerns of border areas cannot be undermined, a progressive way to understand both internal and external security is by also including ecological and social challenges within the framework. This is particularly important in the context of climate change and [the]  biodiversity crisis that has induced transboundary disasters.”

Kohli says bilateral and multilateral agreements are necessary to address these challenges.Meanwhile, Debadityo Sinha, the climate and ecosystems lead at the Vidhi Centre for legal policy is concerned about the amendment’s planning concessions for “public utilities”. Sinha says the term is too wide: “The broader understanding of public utilities can cover a range of projects, right from banks, hospitals and parking lots, to airports.