The Forest Conservation Amendment Bill 2023:Balancing Development and Environment

Introduction

The recent passage of the Forest Conservation Amendment Bill 2023 by the Lok Sabha has been met with both support and controversy from various stakeholders. The Bill, introduced by the Union Minister for Environment, Forest, and Climate Change, aims to tackle the evolving challenges in conserving and protecting India’s diverse and vital forests. While it seeks to address the pressing issues related to environmental conservation, it has also raised concerns about striking the right balance between development and preserving natural ecosystems.

Importance of India’s Forests

India’s forests are renowned for their dense and vast ecosystems, which harbor an extraordinary biodiversity of more than 45,000 flora and 81,000 faunal species. These forests provide crucial ecosystem services that are essential for sustaining life. They offer timber, food, fuel, fodder, non-wood products, and shelter for various species, while also contributing to soil and water conservation, carbon storage, and clean air. Protecting and conserving these invaluable resources are imperative for the well-being of both present and future generations.

Historical Perspective on Forest Conservation

The concept of forest conservation in India can be traced back to the Mauryan Period, where early laws were established to punish those who harmed the environment. The Indian Forests Act of 1865 and its successor, the Indian Forest Act of 1927, laid the groundwork for forest protection during the colonial era. Following alarming rates of deforestation, the Forest Conservation Act of 1980 emerged to ensure sustainable development while safeguarding ecologically sensitive areas known as deemed forests.

Highlights of the Bill

1) Expansion of Applicability: The Bill amends the Forest (Conservation) Act, 1980 to extend its application to certain types of land. This includes land officially notified as a forest under the Indian Forest Act, 1927, or recorded as such in government documents after the enactment of the 1980 Act. Land converted to non-forest use before December 12, 1996, however, remains exempt from the Act’s provisions.

2) Exemptions: The Bill introduces exemptions for specific types of land. This includes land located within 100 km of India’s borders, which may be needed for national security projects. Additionally, exemptions apply to small roadside amenities and public roads leading to human settlements.

3) Approval for Assigning Forest Land: Previously, the state government required prior approval from the central government to assign forest land to private entities. The Bill extends this requirement to all entities and empowers the central government to specify the terms and conditions for such assignments.

4) Permissible Activities: The Act currently outlines certain activities that can be carried out in forests, such as the establishment of check posts, fencing, and bridges. The Bill introduces new provisions that allow for the operation of zoos, safaris, and eco-tourism facilities within the forest areas.

Purpose and Focus of the Forest Conservation Amendment Bill 2023

The Forest Conservation Amendment Bill 2023 seeks to address the challenges that have arisen since the enactment of the 1980 Act. One of its significant focal points is to remove ambiguity surrounding the Supreme Court’s 1996 judgment in TN Godavarman Thirumulpad, which has been a point of contention in forest conservation matters.

Land under the purview of the Act

  1. Land that has been declared or notified as a forest under the Indian Forest Act, 1927, or any other relevant law.
  2. Land that is not covered in the first category but has been notified as a forest in a government record on or after October 25, 1980.

Additionally, the Act will not be applicable to land that was converted from forest use to non-forest use on or before December 12, 1996, by any authority authorized by a state or Union Territory.

Exemptions under the Bill

The Bill includes exemptions for certain types of land from the Act’s provisions. These exemptions encompass forest land located alongside a railway line or a government-maintained public road providing access to a habitation, rail, or roadside amenity, limited to a maximum size of 0.10 hectare. Moreover, forest land falling within 100 km along the international borders, Line of Control, or Line of Actual Control may also be exempted if intended for the construction of strategic linear projects of national importance or security.

Additionally, land up to 10 hectares can be exempted if proposed for constructing security-related infrastructure. Furthermore, forest land intended for constructing defense-related projects, camps for paramilitary forces, or public utility projects specified by the central government (not exceeding five hectares in a left-wing extremism affected area) may also receive exemptions. However, these exemptions will be subject to the terms and conditions specified by the central government through guidelines.

Concerns and Criticisms

However, the Forest Conservation Amendment Bill 2023 has raised valid concerns among critics. Some worry that the Bill fails to prioritize the regeneration of natural forests and instead incentivizes afforestation primarily for commercial purposes. This approach could compromise the integrity of the Supreme Court’s 1996 judgment, which extended protection to forests not officially classified as such. Moreover, the exemption of projects near international borders from requiring forest clearance raises environmental and security concerns, particularly in the North-Eastern States, where there are fears of potential land misuse for defense purposes without their consent.

Arguments in Support of the Amendment

On the other hand, proponents of the amendment argue that it aligns with India’s goal of achieving net-zero emissions by 2070 and promotes sustainable development while maintaining ecological balance. They believe that activities such as the creation of ecotourism facilities, safaris, silviculture, exploration, and seismic surveys can contribute to industrial and economic development in line with national priorities.

Striking a Balance Between Forest Conservation and Economic Activities

The Forest Conservation Amendment Bill 2023 , builds upon the 1980 Act designed to combat deforestation by requiring prior approval from the central government for diverting forest land for non-forest purposes. The Bill introduces additional activities such as silvicultural operations, safaris, and eco-tourism facilities to be allowed in forests without prior approval. Similarly, certain surveys, like reconnaissance and prospecting, can be conducted without approval, potentially contributing to economic development and national priorities. However, concerns arise about the need to strike a balance between economic benefits and forest conservation, as the blanket exemptions may replace individual case assessments by the central government.

Another aspect of the Bill raises questions about the purpose of allowing zoos inside forests. The Supreme Court’s remarks indicate uncertainty about the necessity of having a zoo within tiger reserves or national parks, as these areas are meant to preserve wildlife in their natural habitat, not in artificial environments.

Challenges in Finding Equilibrium

As India continues to experience rapid growth and development, finding this equilibrium remains a significant challenge. Policymakers must carefully consider the long-term implications on environmental sustainability and biodiversity conservation while balancing the nation’s developmental aspirations

Call for Diligent Implementation

To ensure the successful implementation of the Forest Conservation Amendment Bill 2023, diligent monitoring, and active participation from all stakeholders are crucial. Moreover, a willingness to adapt and refine the legislation as needed will be necessary to address concerns raised by critics and ensure the protection and preservation of India’s precious natural resources.

Conclusion

In conclusion, the Forest Conservation Amendment Bill 2023 represents a positive step in the right direction towards protecting India’s diverse forests. However, it must navigate the concerns raised by critics and strive to provide clarity and certainty in its provisions. The long-term implications on environmental sustainability, biodiversity conservation, and the overall well-being of both human and non-human populations should be at the forefront of policymaking efforts. By fostering a collaborative approach among all stakeholders, India can effectively balance development and environmental preservation for a sustainable future.

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