Amendments in Forest Conservation Act

News: The Union Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change has proposed several amendments to the Forest (Conservation) Act, 1980 (FCA), which may enable infrastructure projects to come up in the forest areas more easily.

What are the amendments?

  • They propose to grant exemptions to railways, roads, tree plantations, oil exploration, wildlife tourism and ‘strategic’ projects in forests. The proposal also aims to empower state governments to lease forest land to private individuals and corporations.
  • If the proposed amendments come into force, they would dilute the provisions of the landmark 1996 decision of the Supreme Court in Godavarman
  • The amendments, however, propose two changes to strengthen the applicability of the FCA, according to the documents accessed:
  • To complete the process of forest identification in a time-bound manner
  • To enable the creation of ‘no-go’ areas, where specific projects would not be allowed

The Forest (Conservation) Act, 1980

  • First Forest Act was enacted in 1927. Alarmed at India’s rapid deforestation and resulting environmental degradation, the Centre Government enacted the Forest (Conservation) Act in 1980.
  • It was enacted to consolidate the law related to forest, the transit of forest produces and the duty liveable on timber and other forest produce. Forest officers and their staff administer the Forest Act.
  • Under the provisions of this Act, prior approval of the Central Government is required for diversion of forest lands for non-forest purposes.
  • An Advisory Committee constituted under the Act advises the Centre on these approvals.
  • The Act deals with the four categories of the forests, namely reserved forests, village forests, protected forests and private forests.

Reserved forest

  • A state may declare forest lands or waste lands as reserved forest and may sell the produce from these forests. Any unauthorized felling of trees quarrying, grazing and hunting in reserved forests is punishable with a fine or imprisonment, or both

Village forests

  • Reserved forests assigned to a village community are called village forests.

Protected forests

  • The state governments are empowered to designate protected forests and may prohibit the felling of trees, quarrying and the removal of forest produce from these forests. The preservation of protected forests is enforced through rules, licenses and criminal prosecutions.
  • The FCA is brief legislation with only five sections of which-
  • Section 1 defines the extent of coverage of the law,
  • Section 2 restrictions of activities in forest areas and the rest deals with the creation of advisory committees, powers of rule-making and penalties.

Proposed Amendments in detail:

  • The proposed amendments seek to make additions and changes to Section 1 and 2.

Survey and exploration

  • In the proposed new section 1A, a provision has been added to exempt the application of FCA on forest land that is “used for underground exploration and production of oil and natural gas through Extended Reach Drilling (ERD) originating outside forest land.”
  • The exemption is subject to terms and conditions laid down by the central government.
  • A new explanation added to Section 2 says that “survey, reconnaissance, prospecting, exploration or investigation” for future activity in the forest will not be classified as a “non-forestry activity”.
  • This means such survey works would not require any prior permission from the government.
  • The only exception is if the activity falls within a wildlife sanctuary, national park or tiger reserve.

Exemptions to Railways and roads:

  • Land acquired by the railways for establishing a rail line or a road by a government agency before 25.10.1980 (the day the FCA was passed) would be exempted from seeking a forest clearance — if they put the land to the same use for which it was acquired.
  • This is included in a provision in the proposed section 1A.
  • The exemption is subject to terms and conditions that the central government will lay down through guidelines, which include planting trees to compensate for the loss of forests.

Forest land lease:

  • Section 2(iii) of the FCA requires the central government’s approval before assigning forest lands on lease to any private person/corporation/organisation not owned or controlled by the central government.
  • This clause, however, has purportedly been deleted in the proposed amendment.
  • This may mean that state governments can issue leases for the use of forest land without the Centre’s prior approval.

Exempting plantations:

  • A new explanation to Section 2 proposes to exempt plantation of native species of palm and oil-bearing trees from the definition of “non-forest purpose”.
  • Since the FCA applies to the conversion of forest land to “non-forest purpose”, this proposed amendment would effectively mean that anyone who wants to clear a natural forest to raise such plantations would not require any approval from the government.
  • The government will only impose conditions for compensatory afforestation and payment of other levies and compensations.

Exemptions to wildlife tourism:

  • The FCA classifies activities related to wildlife conservation as “non-forestry” purposes, which means such activities — building checkpoints, communication infrastructure, fencing, boundary, etc — which include do not need a forest clearance.
  • The proposed amendment claims to add to this list “forest and wildlife training infrastructure” and the “establishment of zoos and safaris” managed by the government or any authority under the Wildlife Protection Act, 1972.
  • It may also add ecotourism facilities approved under the Forest Working Plan or Working Scheme approved by the central government.

Clearance to strategic projects:

  • The proposed Section 2A may empower the central government to provide for state government approval for projects on forest land for “strategic” or security projects of “national importance”, according to the documents accessed.
  • There is no clarity on the scope of these terms, or on the determination of national importance, or illustrative examples of such projects.

Impact on Supreme Court’s Decision:

  • The Supreme Court in Godavarman Case 1996 had held that the meaning of “forest” under the FCA would include not only statutorily recognised forests.
  • It would include any area recorded as forest in government records, regardless of ownership.
  • The restrictions in the FCA would, therefore, be applicable to both de jure and de facto
  • The proposed amendment purportedly seeks to reduce the scope of this judgment by limiting the applicability of the FCA to only such land that has been:
  • Declared or notified as forest under the Indian Forest Act, 1927
  • Recorded as forest land in the government record prior to 25 October 1980, with the exception of such land if its use has been changed from forest to non-forest purpose prior to 12 December 1996
  • Identified as “forest” by a state government expert committee up to one year from the date of the amendment.
  • The judgment interpreted the Act as it stood then. The addition of a specific definition thus limits the scope of the judgment. De facto forests are, therefore, excluded from the purview of the FCA.

‘No-Go’ areas

  • The proposed amendment inserts a new Section 2B, which will allow the central government to delineate forest areas where conversion to specific non-forest uses would not be permitted for a fixed period of time. The delineation would be based on the basis of pre-defined criteria.
  • This could mean, for instance, that a certain dense forest would not be allowed to be converted to a coal mine for the next 30 years, but it could be allowed to be cleared for a thermal power plant.
  • In the Godavarman case, the Supreme Court had directed states to set up expert committees to draw up a list of forests that were not notified under the Indian Forest Act, 1927 (IFA), but deserved to be protected by the FCA. Several states are yet to comply with this requirement.

Impact

  • The proposed Section 1A(ii) excludes from the purview of the FCA those forests which were described as such in government records (but not notified under the IFA).
  • The Karnataka High Court recently dealt with a matter wherein the state government had passed several orders to de-notify lands classified as “state forest” (but not notified under IFA), and to divert them for non-forest purposes. The lands were then allotted for the rehabilitation of displaced people. The state government completed this process of dereservation of reserved forests in 2017.
  • On March 4, 2021, the high court struck down actions of the state government for not taking “prior approval of the central government” as required under Section 2 of the FCA. It recommended criminal action against any officers responsible for allowing non-forest use of forest land.

Way forward:

  • If the proposed amendment is enacted, the insertion of Section 1A(ii) would exempt the application of the FCA to the land which was converted to non-forest use by the Karnataka government.
  • The exemption of zoos and safaris from “non-forest purpose” comes a year after the government proposed to open a zoo in Mumbai’s Aarey forest and a tiger safari in Madhya Pradesh led to objections from biologists. While state governments may certainly continue to seek dilution of the FCA during enforcement, the removal of the requirement of central government approval is a step towards a dilution of restrictions on forest land use.