WHY FOREST CONSERVATION AMENDMENT BILL, 2023? Source: Himalayan News Chronicle

The amended Act will replace the Forest (Conservation) Act, 1980 and make it easier to divert forest land for other purposes. As per the argument of the government the changes to the law were required to fast-track strategic and security-related projects and also cater “to the livelihood aspirations of the local communities.”

 What It Changes  Some of the changes in the new Act include the exemption of strategic projects concerning national security located within 100 km of distance from the International Borders, the Line of Actual Control, Line of Control, 0.10 ha of forest land proposed to provide connectivity to habitation and establishments located on the side of roads and railways, up to 10 ha of land proposed for security related infrastructure and up to 5 ha of forest land in Left Wing Extremism Affected Districts for public utility projects. Zoos, ecotourism, and safari are an array of forestry activities for the cause of conservation of forests and are also exempted from taking prior approval under the Act.

 New Definition of forest: One of the key features of the Forest Conservation Amendment Bill, 2023, is that it ‘redefines’ forests. In 1996, the Supreme Court, in a landmark judgment, had interpreted the ‘forest’ as any land which is recorded as ‘forest’ in any government record will also require ‘forest clearance’. SC had held that the FC Act must apply to all forests irrespective of the nature of ownership or classification thereof. However, according to the Forest Conservation Amendment, 2023, only those forest lands that are notified as forests under law and those recorded as forests in any government record as on or after 25 October 1980 will be regulated under the principal Act.

 Why it  matters  This means that the non-demarcated forests can be sold, diverted, cleared, felled, utilised, or exploited without any forest clearance. Many ecologists, environmentalists and scientists have criticised the amendment, arguing that it will open the forests to more infrastructure projects and end up causing irreparable damage to the ecology and wildlife. But according to the government, the elimination of ambiguities in the applicability of the Act will facilitate the decision-making process on the proposals involving non-forestry use of forest land by the authorities.

 What the government says “Inclusion of more activities, such as forestry activities in the Bill such as infrastructure for frontline will help to secure quick response to natural hazards in the forests. For want of enabling provisions in the Act, it is difficult to create such basic infrastructure in the forest area thereby affecting the forestry operations, regeneration activities, monitoring and supervision, prevention of forest fires, etc. These provisions will pave the way for better management of forest for improved productivity and flow of ecosystem goods and services will also add to mitigate the impact of climate change and conservation of forests,” the government had argued.

According to the government, these amendments will act as a milestone in the enhancement of the productivity of forests, raising plantations outside forests and strengthening the regulatory mechanism besides catering to the livelihood aspirations of the local communities. Fear Factor. Many, including tribal communities, are not convinced and have expressed fear that the amendments to the FCA will take away their right to the forest. The changes to the Forest Conservation Act are being brought at a time when India is witnessing an increase in natural disasters caused by climate change. Environmentalists argue that further relaxation of the FCA will effectively declassify 197,159 sq. km of forests, which is 15% of India’s total forest cover.