On Wednesday, Environment Minister Bhupender Yadav introduced the Forestry (Conservation) Amendment Bill 2023 in Lok Sabha.
The bill aims to clarify the forestry conservation law and exclude specific categories of land from its jurisdiction to accelerate the implementation of strategic and security-related projects of national importance.
After its introduction, the bill was referred to a joint committee of both houses of Parliament for a thorough review. The committee consists of 19 Lok Sabha members, 10 Rajya Sabha members, and two members nominated by the Lok Sabha speaker.
The government claims the bill seeks to specify the applicability of the Forest (Conservation) Act 1980 to various lands, broaden its horizons and increase India’s forest cover to create a carbon sink of 2.5 to 3,0 billion additional tons of CO2 equivalent by 2030.
Bill proposes exemptions for forest lands
The Forest (Conservation) Amendment Bill, introduced in Lok Sabha, seeks to exempt certain forest lands from the scope of environmental regulations.
These include land located within 100 km of international borders or Line of Control (LOC) that is proposed for strategic linear projects related to national security.
The bill also proposes exemptions for forests located along government-maintained public roads and railways and tree plantations on private land not classified as forest.
The Forest Amendment (Conservation) Bill, currently tabled in Lok Sabha, aims to water down the ‘Deemed Forest’ provisions in the Supreme Court ruling in the T.N. Godavarman case. The existing provision requires that any land registered as a forest on government records requires ‘Forest Clearance’.
One of the primary aims of the bill is to remove any ambiguity around the Supreme Court’s 1996 judgement in the TN Godavarman Thirumulpad vs. Union of India and others cases.
However, the proposed amendment seeks to limit the applicability of the provision only to land registered as forest as of October 25, 1980. This measure has been criticized for its possible negative impact on forest conservation and ecological balance.
The proposed amendment bill is of great concern as it seeks to exempt a significant area of forest land in the country, especially as a large part of such registered forest land was originally transferred to the forest department during the abolition of the Zamindari system.
Bill seeks to clarify forest law
The purpose of the bill is to clarify the scope of the Forest (Conservation) Act 1980 on various lands and to exempt certain categories of land from its scope.
The government claims the amendment will remove ambiguities and bring clarity to the law. It will also encourage planting on non-forest land and facilitate access to small establishments and houses along public roads and railways.
The government argues that new challenges related to ecological, social and environmental developments have emerged at the national level, such as mitigating the impact of climate change, reaching national ‘net zero’ emissions targets by 2070 and maintaining or enhancing forest carbon stocks and international levels.
Therefore, the 1980 Act needs to be amended. The bill has been sent to a joint committee of both Houses of Parliament for detailed consideration.
The Bill includes provisions for compensatory afforestation to be undertaken for the felling of trees on lands exempted under the Act.
It grants the central government the power to specify terms and conditions, through an order, under which various types of surveys, including seismic surveys, will not be considered a violation of forest purposes.
Forest Bill Exemptions and concerns
The proposed bill exempts forest land along railways and highways, as well as proposals for security infrastructure, forestry, zoo/safari establishments, ecotourism facilities, and other activities specified by the Center.
However, the terms used in the bill such as “proposed” and “any other purpose” are too vague and could lead to activities that damage forests and ecosystems. Forestry and plantations are also known threats to Indian forests.
This exemption could lead to the commercialization of the Reserve Forests and the irreversible disturbance of wildlife.
It is important to note that wildlife habitats and biodiversity in Reserve Forests are not limited to Protected Areas, and RFs also provide ecological and livelihood services to local communities.
The classification is vague and could exempt activities that damage forests and wildlife, according to environmentalists.
Forest rights groups have also opposed the bill, claiming that the proposed exemptions violate the Forest Rights Act of 2006.
They claim that the exemptions facilitate forest diversions for government and private agencies and violate both the Forest Conservation Act and the Forest Rights Act.
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