Controversial Forest Conservation (Amendment) Bill, 2023 passed by Lok Sabha without any change, all concerns ignored

Bill passed within 30 minutes amid cries of "Shame” and “We want justice” raised by opposition demanding statement on Manipur, “development” to supersede forest rights, landmark Godavarman decision of the Supreme Court on deforestation
Image Courtesy: The Quint

On July 26, the Lok Sabha passed the contentious Forest Conservation (Amendment) Bill, 2023, which will exempt land within 100km of border that is needed for national security projects, small roadside amenities, and public roads leading to a habitation, from the purview of the forest conservation laws. The said bill was passed ignoring the concerns raised by the experts and civil rights organisation, amid protests as the deadlock over the opposition’s insistence on Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s statement in the House on the Manipur violence continued.

In March of this month, the said bill had been referred to a 31-membered Joint Parliamentary Committee (JPC). The said JPC was being headed by the Ruling Bharatiya Janata Party member Rajendra Agarwal. Public suggestions had been invited by the JPC in May. Notably, the Committee had not proposed any changes to the Bill. However, six MPs from opposition had filed the dissent note. The objections were raised by them on exemption of forest land at border areas from the purview of the Act that might turn detrimental to Biodiversity and forest coverage of border areas especially at Himalayan region. Concerns were also raised that it may lead to exploitation of forest land by using them for non-forest purposes.

It is essential to note that Rajendra Agarwal, who was leading the JPC, was also presiding over the Lok Sabha proceedings in Speaker Om Birla’s absence when the bill was discussed and passed.

Union environment minister says the said amendments will help with development:

Union Environment Minister Bhupender Yadav referenced Nationally Determined Contributions with three quantitative goals and international agreements on the climate problem during the bill’s debate. He said that the first two objectives had been accomplished nine years in advance, but the third objective—creating an additional carbon sink of 2.5 to 3.0 billion tonnes of CO2 equivalent—had not yet been accomplished. As reported by Livemint, Yadav said, “I am happy to inform that India has achieved two of the three Nationally Determined Contributions nine years in advance. The bill will help us in achieving the last goal also.” 

Yadav also said the bill was passed by a joint committee which had visited even border area villages to understand what the legislation will help in achieving.” The bill will help in taking development to the border villages,” said Yadav. “To do that, we must concentrate on agroforestry and expand tree cover. The worldwide community should care about the objective,” as provided by the Hindustan Times. 

He claimed that due to certain limitations in the current law, progress has come to a halt in some places impacted by Left-wing extremism (LWE). “Compensatory afforestation is essential for carbon sink… The bill will prove to be a milestone. We want to encourage afforestation on private land. Also, this would help in addressing development issues in Left-wing extremism affected areas. The tribals are waiting for roads and health facilities. This will help us in achieving this,” as reported by Livemint

Yadav continued by saying that they want important public utility projects to reach these areas. “The exemption to forest areas in a 100 km radius from borders, LAC [the Line of Actual Control with China] and LOC [the Line of Control, the de facto border between India and Pakistan in Jammu and Kashmir]] will help develop roads crucial for border areas…help develop strategic infrastructure for our national security,” as reported by the Hindustan Times.

On BJD MP Bhartruhari Mahtab’s point that the bill was in conflict with the Forest Rights Act, Yadav said there was no contradiction. 

Bill passed amid protest from opposition on Manipur violence:

On Wednesday at 11 a.m., the Opposition members flocked to the Lok Sabha with placards seeking Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s statement regarding the Manipur crisis. The opposition members of parliament carried signs that said “India united against hate” and “India wants reply, not silence” and shouted “We want justice” intermingled with cries of “Shame.” The House was adjourned by Speaker Om Birla shortly before noon. The House was once more suspended till 2:00 pm in the afternoon.

The administration seems intent to advance a portion of its legislative agenda during the post-lunch session, according to the Hindustan Times. Notably, even as the National Commission for Scheduled Tribes had objected to a few of the controversial Forest Conservation Amendment Bill’s clauses, it was tabled for review and passage before the Lok Sabha. The issue was discussed by four MPs amid incessant sloganeering from opposition members. It is important to mention that the said bill was enacted within 30 minutes of the House convening, amidst the sloganeering.

What were the concerns raised against the said bill?

On July 18, a few days before the bill was passed by the Lok Sabha, around 400 ecologists, biologists, and naturalists had written to Yadav and other members of the Parliament, pleading them to not introduce the proposed legislation. In the said letter, they had highlighted the terrible effects of environmental degradation and climate change, emphasising on the flooding across the north India this summer. “Now is the time for the administration to reconfirm its dedication to safeguarding the vast biodiversity of the nation…The main goal of this amendment is to speed up the destruction of India’s natural forests.” They demanded more discussions with subject-matter specialists.

It is pertinent to highlight here that the now passed bill covers only land that has been declared or notified as forest under the Indian Forest Act, 1927, or under any other law. It states that no prior clearance is not needed for the construction of any strategic linear project of national importance. Essentially, almost all of the ecologically-fragile northeast fall under this category.

As provided by the Hindustan Times, the submissions attached to the JPC report shows opposition to the provisions of the bill, which are as follows:

  1. The report acknowledges that experts have noted that the amendments were likely to weaken the landmark Godavarman decision of the Supreme Court from 1996. The aforementioned decision had expanded the application of the Forest Conservation Act to include all land that had been designated as a forest, regardless of who owned it—for example, huge areas of unclassified woods in the northeast.
  2. Additionally, the experts also pointed out that the 100 km exemption from border areas can be detrimental to ecologically sensitive areas of the northeast. “Please look at the northeast, for example. If you are going to exempt 100 kilometres from each border, what is going to be left? It is a very sensitive area. As it is, we are seeing the problems which are being created because of certain communities who have had traditional rights and customary rights to forests under Schedule VI [of] the Constitution which itself, I believe, is inadequate,” noted an unnamed expert in the submission made to the JPC, as provided by the Hindustan Times. 

The Sixth Schedule provides for the autonomous administration of tribal areas in Assam, Meghalaya, Tripura, and Mizoram.

On this particular concern, the environment ministry said the 100 km provision has been decided in consultation with the defence ministry. It insisted it is considered optimum to meet the requirement of defence organisations and strategic requirements. The proposed exemption along the international borders and in LWE areas are not generic exemptions and will not be available for private entities, it said.

  1. Experts had also pointed out that the bill violated provisions of the Forest Rights Act as it does not clearly speak of prior informed consent of village councils on forest clearances. The environment ministry has insisted there was no violation.

One of the Congressmen who provided dissenting opinions to the JPC, Pradyut Bordoloi, noted that the reconciliation of the forest conservation law with the issue of forest rights “remains an obvious gap, even in the statement and objects of the amendment.” That should have been crucial, he continued, especially since practically all proposed revisions would inevitably affect any forest rights that are currently in effect, on hold, or recognised. He remarked, according to the Hindustan Times, “There is an absence of any perspective on how existing proprietary, customary, and livelihood use rights will be handled for net zero compliant lands or in the case of fresh forest land diversions.”

The complete bill can be read here:



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How a battle is being waged within India’s forests, for rights over land and resources

TN: Under the Forest Rights Act, 2006, 158 people in two villages have been granted title deeds

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