The Forest (Conservation) Amendment Bill, 2023

The Forest (Conservation) Amendment Bill, 2023

News: The Forest Conservation (Amendment) Bill 2023 is expected to be tabled for clearance during the monsoon parliament session.

• The Forest (Conservation) Amendment Bill, 2023, is a proposed legislation aimed at amending the Forest (Conservation) Act, 1980, with the objective of promoting sustainable development while conserving India’s forests and biodiversity.

What was the need for amendments?
• The forest-clearance approval is one of the most difficult permits to obtain in India, requiring a wait of as long as 365 days.
• India’s land records are in terrible shape, parcels marked as forests in one official record can be given a different classification in another.
• The Union government, with the amendment, aims to rectify judicial errors made in the Godavarman case regarding the scope of forest laws in India. The court in the case expanded the scope of the Forest Conservation Act to all land parcels recorded as forest in any government records. This led to debates and confusions about whether a piece of land was actually a forest or a fragile ecosystem.
• For instance, footpaths were classified as ‘strip forests,’ creating unnecessary hurdles for people who needed access roads to their properties.
• To make matters worse, the court order was worded such that it led states to avoid reclassifying forests.
• According to the Centre, these amendments are necessary to remove ambiguities and bring clarity about the applicability of the Act on various lands.

Key Provisions of the Forest (Conservation) Amendment Bill, 2023:
Land under the purview of the Act
• The Bill provides that two types of land will be under the purview of the Act: (i) land declared/notified as a forest under the Indian Forest Act, 1927 or under any other law, or (ii) land not covered in the first category but notified as a forest on or after October 25, 1980 in a government record.

Assignment/leasing of forest land
• Under the Act, a state government requires prior approval of the central government to assign forest land to any entity not owned or controlled by the government.
• In the Bill, this condition is extended to all entities, including those owned and controlled by the government.

Permitted activities in forest land
• The Act specifies certain activities that will be excluded from non-forest purposes, meaning that restrictions on the use of forest land for non-forest purposes will not apply. These activities include works related to the conservation, management, and development of forest and wildlife such as establishing check posts, fire lines, fencing, and wireless communication.
• The Bill adds more activities to this list such as - (i) zoos and safaris under the Wild Life (Protection) Act, 1972 (ii) ecotourism facilities, (iii) silvicultural operations and (iv) any other purpose specified by the central government.

Exempted categories of land
• The Bill exempts certain types of forest land from the provisions of the Act such as -
• Forest land along a rail line or a public road maintained by the government providing access to a habitation, or to a rail, and roadside amenities up to a maximum size of 0.10 hectare.
• Forest land situated within 100 km from international borders, Line of Control, or Line of Actual Control, for construction of a strategic linear project of national importance and concerning national security.
• Forest land up to 10 hectares, for constructing security-related infrastructure.
• Forest land proposed to be used for constructing defense related projects, camps for paramilitary forces, or public utility projects up to five hectares in a left-wing extremism affected area.

Power to issue directions
• The Bill adds that the central government may issue directions for the implementation of the Act to any other authority/organisation under or recognised by the centre, state or UT.

What are the concerns raised over the bill?
• The Bill limits the applicability of the Forest (Conservation) Act only to land recorded as ‘forest.’ This excludes millions of hectares of land that have forest characteristics but are not officially notified as such, removing their protection under the Act.
• The Bill incentivizes the establishment of plantations on land where the FC Act is not applicable. These plantations can then be used to compensate for the diversion of recorded forest land for development projects. This trade-off between natural forests and plantations weakens the conservation goals of the legislation.
• The bill supports certain exemptions will remove the necessity of forest clearances. For instance, In border areas, which are home to the most ecologically important ecosystems in the country. This will be in conflict with the rights of forest-dwelling tribes, as they will no longer be consulted before seeking forest clearances.
• Vast areas of unrecorded forests were left out during the process of designating reserved and protected forests. Instead of completing the demarcation process, the Bill ignores these unrecorded forests, further jeopardizing their protection.

What is the government’s perspective?
• The government sees it as rare opportunity for India to correct a 27-year-old policy logjam that is holding up growth and employment opportunities, without helping the country substantially conserve its forests.
• The amendments will support the country’s objective to increase forest and tree cover up to a third of its land area, help the country achieve Net Zero emissions by 2070 and maintain or enhance forest carbon stocks through ecologically balanced sustainable development.
• It will help create a carbon sink amounting to 2.5-3 billion tonnes of CO2-equivalent by 2030 under the Nationally Determined Contribution targets.
• The scope of this act can be further expanded with emerging ecological challenges of forest conservation, restoration, compensatory mechanism, mitigation measures, etc.

Way Forward
• While ensuring the military security of the country is a priority, the Bill should not come at the cost of losing ecological security.
• Forest ecosystems play a crucial role in buffering against increasingly unpredictable weather patterns caused by climate change.

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