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The Forest (Conservation) Amendment Bill 2023

 GS Paper 3

 Syllabus: Environment, Conservation

 

Source: DTE

Context: The Forest Conservation (Amendment) Bill 2023 is expected to be tabled for clearance during the monsoon parliament session that began on July 20, 2023.

 

The Forest (Conservation) Act 1980:

  • It was enacted to ensure that India’s forest land is not willingly usurped for non-forestry purposes.
  • The Act empowers the Centre to require that any forest land diverted for non-forestry purposes be duly compensated.
  • it broadens its purview to include territory that is not formally designated as “forest” in State or Central government records.

 

Need for the latest amendments:

  • This forest-clearance approval is one of the most difficult permits to obtain in India, requiring a wait of as long as 365 days and lakhs of rupees in bribes.
  • India’s land records are in terrible shape, parcels marked as forests in one official record can be given a different classification in another.
  • 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.

 

Some of the proposed amendments:

  • Cultivating plantations on non-forest land that could (over time) increase tree cover.
  • Removing the (1980 Act’s) restrictions on creating infrastructure that would aid national security and create livelihood opportunities for those living on the periphery of forests. For example,
    • In geographically sensitive areas within 100 km of the International Borders or the Line of Control, no forest clearance is required to construct highways, hydel power projects, etc.
    • No forest clearance is required to establish zoos, safari parks and ecotourism activities.
    • No central protection for vast tracts of so-called ‘deemed forests’ (forests not officially recorded as forests) and permitting activities such as tourism.

 

For more features click here: Forest Conservation (Amendment) Bill 2023

 

Concerns raised by the environmentalists:

  • Amending the name of the Act: To Van (Sanrakshan Evam Samvardhan) Adhiniyam (translated as Forest Conservation and Augmentation) from the existing Forest (Conservation) Act.
  • The reclassification of forest areas adds confusion:
    • The Bill states that the FCA will only apply to areas recorded as forests in government records, as on or after 25 October 1980.
    • This has raised fears that the amendment will invalidate the SC’s 1996 judgment in T.N. Godavarman vs Union of India, which expanded the purview of the FCA by interpreting the meaning of forest as its dictionary definition.
    • If these areas are declassified, 1,97,159 sq km of forests (27.62% of total 7,13,789 sq km) that lie outside Recorded Forest Areas will lose all protection.
  • Framed without taking real scenario into consideration:
    • Only 21% of India’s land area has forests and only 12.37% of this is intact natural forest.
    • While the India State of Forest Report 2021 has shown a marginal increase (2261 sq. km) in forest cover, it hides a pattern of deforestation in some parts of the country.
    • For instance, the most biodiversity-rich north-eastern hill States show a net decline of 3199 sq. km of forest cover from 2009-2019.
    • Also, this marginal increase in forest cover can be ascribed to commercial plantations, which can’t replace the ecological functions performed by intact natural forests.
  • Exemptions will remove the necessity of forest clearances:
    • 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.
  • The Bill was referred to a joint committee (JPC) instead of the standing committee: The 31-member joint committee (18 are from the ruling party) has 21 members from the Lok Sabha and 10 from the Rajya Sabha.
    • The JPC has not suggested any changes in the original version of the Bill.

 

Government’s intention:

  • This is a 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 changes are necessary considering the dynamic changes in the ecological, strategic and economic aspirations of the country.
  • 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.
    • 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 ahead:

  • The Bill should not be tabled in Parliament without additional consultations with domain experts.
  • As the devastating impacts of climate change and environmental degradation become clearer (recent floods across north India), this is the time for the government to reaffirm its commitment to protecting the country’s immense biodiversity.

 

Conclusion:

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

 

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The Forest (Conservation) Amendment Bill 2023