Forest Conservation Amendment Bill, 2023 Passed By The Parliament: Here Is What It Changes
Even as environmentalists, activists, and scientists continued their protests, the Parliament on Thursday passed the Forest Conservation Amendment Bill, 2023.
The Bill that was passed by the Lok Sabha last week was cleared by the Rajya Sabha on Thursday.
The Bill will now go to the President of India for her assent, after which it will become law.
Why the Forest (Conservation) Amendment Bill, 2023 was essential... pic.twitter.com/nQWg0iGtf4— Bhupender Yadav (@byadavbjp) August 2, 2023
Why Forest Conservation Amendment Bill, 2023?
The amended Act will replace the Forest (Conservation) Act, 1980 and make it easier to diverge forest land for other purposes.
The government argues that changes to the law were required to fast-track strategic and security-related projects and also cater "to the livelihood aspirations of the local communities."
Some of the changes in the new Act include the exemption of strategic projects concerning national security located within 100 km of distance from the International Borders, the Line of Actual Control, Line of Control, 0.10 ha of forest land proposed to provide connectivity to habitation and establishments located on the side of roads and railways, up to 10 ha of land proposed for security related infrastructure and up to 5 ha of forest land in Left Wing Extremism Affected Districts for public utility projects.
Zoos, ecotourism, and safari into the array of forestry activities for the cause of conservation of forests are also exempted from taking prior approval under the Act.
What is a forest?
One of the key features of the Forest Conservation Amendment Bill, 2023, is that it 'redefines' forests.
In 1996, the Supreme Court, in a landmark judgment, had interpreted the 'forest' as any land which is recorded as 'forest' in any government record will also require 'forest clearance'. SC had held that the FC Act must apply to all forests irrespective of the nature of ownership or classification thereof.
However, according to the Forest Conservation Amendment, 2023, only those forest lands that are notified as forests under law and those recorded as forests in any government record as on or after 25 October 1980 will be regulated under the principal Act.
Why it matters
This means that the non-demarcated forests can be sold, diverted, cleared, felled, utilised, or exploited without any forest clearance.
Many ecologists, environmentalists and scientists have criticised the amendment, arguing that it will open the forests to more infrastructure projects and end up causing irreparable damage to the ecology and wildlife.
But according to the government, the elimination of ambiguities in the applicability of Act will facilitate the decisions making process on the proposals involving non-forestry use of forest land by the authorities.
What the government argues
"Inclusion of more activities, as forestry activities in the Bill such as infrastructure for frontline will help to secure quick response to natural hazards in the forests. For want of enabling provisions in the Act, it is difficult to create such basic infrastructure in the forest area thereby affecting the forestry operations, regeneration activities, monitoring and supervision, prevention of forest fires, etc. These provisions will pave the way for better management of forest for improved productivity and flow of ecosystem goods and services will also add to mitigate the impact of climate change and conservation of forests," the government had argued.
According to the government, these amendments will act as a milestone in the enhancement of the productivity of forests, raising plantations outside forests and strengthening the regulatory mechanism besides catering to the livelihood aspirations of the local communities.
But many, including tribal communities, are not convinced and have expressed fear that the amendments to the FCA will take away their right to the forest.
Will affect 15 per cent of India's forest cover
The changes to the Forest Conservation Act are being brought at a time when India is witnessing an increase in natural disasters caused by climate change.
Scientists and environmentalists have blamed the increase in frequency and magnitude of floods and landslides in some of India's most ecologically fragile regions, including the Himalayas and the Western Ghats, on ecological degradation caused by deforestation and unscientific construction and infrastructure projects.
Environmentalists argue that further relaxation of the FCA will effectively declassify 197,159 sq. km of forests, which is 15% of India’s forest cover.
"It is ironic that they are calling it the Forest Conservation Bill when what they are doing is the opposite," Yash Marwah, a Mumbai-based environmentalist, said.
"There is enough evidence of human-induced climate change around us. In such a scenario investing in protecting our forests rather than making forest diversion easier should have been the sensible choice," Bahar Dutt, a Delhi-based conservation biologist, said.
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