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THE FOREST (CONSERVATION) AMENDMENT BILL, 2023: A CRITICAL ANALYSIS

INTRODUCTION

The Forest (Conservation) Amendment Bill, 2023,[1] which was proposed in the Lower House or House of People on March 29 and thereafter forwarded to the Parliament’s Joint Committee, which is led by Rajendra Agrawal requested open recommendations about the Bill, calls for the nation’s rich heritage of safeguarding forests and the desire of attaining country goals of the net zero emission of CO2 by the year 2070. The suggestion, however, fundamentally weakens the original Forest Conservation Act (FCA), undermining its main goal of ensuring forest conservation and halting deforestation.

A SYNOPSIS OF THE NEW BILL’S PROVISIONS 

The Forest (Conservation) Amendment bill is a lovely representation of Shiv’s (the God of Nature) Trishul (Trident), placing the spotlight on the three ways that forests are defined as the breath organ of the earth (providers of life), the driving force behind a country’s economic expansion (development & sustainability), and the original defence mechanism of a nation’s geography (defence and security).[2] The Lok Sabha was first presented with the Forest (Conservation) Amendment Bill, 2023 by Environment Minister Bhupender Yadav. To expedite security-related projects of national significance, this amendment bill attempts to simplify India’s forest preservation laws and exempt certain land categorizations from its reach. The Forest (Conservation) Amendment Bill, of 2023 is an attempt to expand the scope of the Forest (Conservation) Act, of 1980,[3] which is an Indian law that establishes rules for using forest land for purposes other than forestry as a whole like mine-work, industrial enterprises, and other sorts of development. The Act of 1980 was passed to protect forests and animals by governing activities like timber harvesting, grazing, and cultivation on forest grounds.

The goal of the 2023 Forest (Conservation) Amendment Bill is to expand the scope of the Act. This is consistent with India’s goals to increase green cover such that by the end of this decade, a further approximately 2.5–3.0 billion tonnes of carbon dioxide (CO2) will serve as a carbon sink. The suggested amendments aim to include more initiatives for bolstering forest and wildlife preservation.

The 2023 Amendment Bill makes it feasible for small businesses to operate, encourages housing alongside public roads and railroads, and allows plantings on non-forest land. Furthermore, it proposes to add a preamble to the Act to incorporate the long-standing national history of protecting forests and their biodiversity and addressing climate change issues.

While considering the proposed Act relaxations, the Bill lays out criteria and restrictions. One of them is the requirement to plant trees to make up for trees that were cut down on the land. To maintain the ecosystem’s equilibrium, this makes sure that the removal of trees is made up for by the planting of an equal number of new trees. The revisions ensure that the Act’s provisions are applied consistently to both public and private institutions. Thus, regardless of whether they are owned by the government or the private sector, all organizations engaged in forest and wildlife conservation would be subject to the Act’s rules.

CONCERNS REGARDING THE PROPOSED BILL

 The Joint Committee has received comments on the amendment bill from many people. One of the recommendations is from Prerna Singh Bindra, Former Member of the Standing Committee, National Board for Wildlife, and Prakriti Srivastava, Principal Chief Conservator of Forests, Kerala. In essence, the modifications seem to have four main goals: The proposed changes include: a) repealing the provisions of the current Forest Conservation Act; b) reversing the conservation gains made possible by the Godavarman[4] decision; c) limiting the scope and application of the Conservation of Forest Act and converting sizable tracts of forest to other land uses; and d) privatizing sizable areas of forests ostensibly to create plantations under the guise of “sustainable development” and carbon balance.

The amendment will significantly affect tribal communities and people who live in the forests. Many of the Bill’s proposed amendments [Section 1A(1)(b) and 1A (2)] harm the protections provided to Scheduled Tribes (STs) and other Traditional Forest Dwellers (OTFDs) under the FRA because, if the land is outside the FCA’s purview, the need to obtain the Gramme Sabha’s approval before diverting it is effectively eliminated. The committee emphasized that by allowing for the recognition of the STs’ and OTFDs’ forest rights, the FRA seeks to atone for the historical injustice these communities have experienced as a result of having their forest rights denied.

Millions of hectares of land that exhibit the characteristics of forests but are not registered as such will lose legal protection under the FC Act if the Act’s scope is restricted to include just those lands that are recorded as forests on or after October 25, 1980. It has concerning repercussions: Significant woods around the nation will be exempt. The major portion of the tiger habitats of the Terai and Central India, Aravallis, the Western and Eastern Ghats, the Northeastern hotspots for biodiversity, and numerous mangrove forests along the coastlines may no longer constitute a ‘Forest’ and could be diverted, sold, cleared out, cut down, used, destroyed without any regulation if the bill becomes law, submitted by the report of Vidhi Centre for Legal Policy.

The landmark T. N. Godavarman Thirumpad V Union of India judgment from the Supreme Court, which expanded the application of the FCA to any land listed as forest by the government regardless of ownership, will likely be undermined by the Forest (Conservation) Amendment Bill. However, the ministry has clarified that the proposed changes will not invalidate the SC order. Significant forests will be exempt if the Act’s scope is restricted to encompass only those lands that are recorded as forests on or after October 25, 1980. So, if the Bill is approved, the majority of the Terai, the Aravallis, and Central India’s tiger habitats, the Western Ghats region, and the northeast’s hotspots for biodiversity could cease to be considered as “forest” and might be sold, shifted cleared, chopped down, used, or exploited without any oversight from regulatory bodies.

Wildlife might suffer disastrous effects. The idea that wildlife is restricted to protected areas is untrue. A significant portion of the wolf, bustard, and leopard populations, as well as more than one-third of India’s tigers, elephants, and leopards, live in areas outside the protected areas.[5]

WAY FORWARD

  • Conduct ground investigations: The goal is supposed to be to finish the process of demarcating unregistered forests rather than constrain the FC Act’s applicability. This will guarantee their incorporation into the law and their safeguarding.
  • Carefully balance growth and preservation: Development programs and the preservation of forests should be carefully considered. Instead, of favouring plantations over natural forests, regenerative afforestation should be performed on non-forested or deteriorated forests.
  • Respect for the rights of indigenous and forest groups: Prior approval from these groups should be obtained before diverting any forest area. Procedures for making choices should take into account their way of life and reliance on the forests.

CONCLUSION

If passed into law, the Forest Conservation Amendment Bill, 2023 (FCAB) will likely remove the large belt of the North-eastern region’s already-dwindling forests reserve from the protection of the current Forest Conservation Act, 1980 (FCA 1980), as it seeks to express categories of land from the Forest Conservation Act 1980’s safeguards. If the proposed law is approved by the Parliament, some clauses will exempt from the surveillance of the FC Act 1980 the whole extent of the highly hypersensitive states of Manipur, Meghalaya, Tripura, Mizoram, and Nagaland. For mining, building infrastructure, and other uses, forests had always been altered or destroyed. To lower carbon emissions by 2070, strong regulations are consequently necessary. The recommendation made in the proposed modification to the 1980 Forest Conservation Act has to be reviewed and revisited. A stronger rule is the need of the hour. The new amendment should be made with consideration for the rights of affected groups, the protection of the unclassified forest area, which accounts for 15% of all the forest cover in India, and the delicate balance between industrialization and ecology. While the development of the industry is crucial for the nation’s economy, it is also important to protect the Forest and ecosystems.

Author(s) Name: Muskan (Lloyad Law College, Greater Noida)

References:

[1] The Forest (Conservation) Amendment Bill, 2023

[2]  Arvind Khare, ‘The Forest (Conservation) Amendment Bill 2023: A need of the hour’ Financial Express (April 5, 2023)

[3] The Forest (Conservation) Act, 1980

[4] T. N. Godavarman Thirumulpad vs Union of India & Ors. [1997] 2 SCC 267

[5] Jayashree Nandi, ‘New amendment bill will endanger India`s most ecologically rich forests: Expert to JPC’ Hindustan Times (May 24, 2023)