The Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change on October 2, 2021 proposed amendments to Forest (Conservation) Act, 1980 that do away with many stringent laws requiring prior approval for development projects on forest land. While the deadline for submitting comments and suggestions regarding the changes has been extended to November 1, many environmental groups have condemned the government for weakening the country’s environmental laws. The amendments will cause a drastic alteration to a national conservation programme in place since the mid-1970s.
The Forest (Conservation) Act (FCA) was enacted from October 25, 1980 to check deforestation. It required the prior approval of the central government for de-reservation of reserved forests and for use of forest land for non-forest purposes. Further, it called for an advisory committee to advise the government regarding such approvals. Over the years, lands bearing vegetation, irrespective of ownership and classification, came under the ambit of this Act, particularly if the land is considered a forest based on locally defined criteria.
“This leads to ambiguity and has been observed to be resulted into (sic) lot of resentment and resistance particularly from private individuals and organisations,” said the Ministry proposal.
It claimed that the Ministry of Railways, Ministry of Road, Transport & Highways, and others resented the interpreted scope of the Act over the Right of Way (RoW) of railways, highways, etc. As such, it suggested de-reserving some of this land.
“In most cases, these RoWs are claimed to have been formally acquired by these developmental organisations long before 1980, with a specific purpose to construct / establish rail line and roads. Ministry is considering to exempt such lands acquired before October 25, 1980 from the purview of the Act,” said the proposal. Under colonial rule, the construction of the Indian Railway had been accompanied by widespread destruction of trees and national habitats as the project was first executed to fulfil the mass production motives of the British government. Timber was required for their own industry and thereafter the War and India’s forest provided ready natural loot.
Essentially, the Ministry suggests exempting similar categories of infrastructure project developers from requiring the aforementioned approval from the Centre to use forest land for non-forestry purposes. This includes international border projects that seek to develop infrastructure and hold our borders intact.
It also suggests exempting upto 0.05ha for roads and railway projects to alleviate the hardship of residents/business owners. Similarly, land deemed forests in revenue records after December 12, 1996 will be exempted from the provisions of the Act.
The Ministry also recommends doing away with Section 2 (iii) of the Act so as to alleviate confusion for a mining lease holder who will break or clear the forested land. This means that reserved forest land may be given to private organisations for non-forest use without requiring the environmental clearance. Accordingly, lease renewal will also not require compensatory feed for degrading forest land.
“New technologies are coming up such as Extended Reach Drilling (ERD), which enables exploration or extraction of oil and natural gas deep beneath the forest land by making drilling holes from outside forest areas and without impacting the soil or aquifer that supports the forest in the forest land. Ministry considers use of such technology is quite environment-friendly and as such should be kept outside the purview of Act,” said the proposal.
Another change in this section is regarding the ‘non-forestry use’ of forest land that identifies activities which are to be regarded as non-forestry activity. The Ministry suggests that ancillary projects like establishment of zoos, safaris, Forest Training infrastructures, etc. should not come within the meaning of “non-forestry activity.” Surveys inside reserved forests for development projects will also not be considered “non-forest” activity and thus not require approval from the central government.
Aside from these major changes, the proposal suggests keeping “certain pristine forests showcasing rich ecological values intact for a specific period.” Overall, the law dismisses the Supreme Court judgement that defined forests using the dictionary meaning.
While the Ministry had initially given state and union territory authorities 15 days to respond to the suggestions, activists and concerned organisations voiced their ire against the short time period. Many argued that on top of quietly ushering in the proposal on a national holiday, the Ministry had published the document in English alone, excluding many affected communities from the decision.
Regressive and laughable amendments proposed to the Forest Conservation Act, such legislative policy resembles the psyche of the erstwhile colonial raj. Ministry of railway and highway are said to be “resentful” to the FC Act! https://t.co/x1nbTGO1Aw
— Sreeja Chakraborty (@SreejaRai) October 6, 2021
The devil works hard but the MOEFCC works harder. https://t.co/dP66TMhnuE
— Disha Ravi ? (@disharavii) October 4, 2021
Land rights and Forest rights groups have roundly objected to this policy shift and change. At the first stage itself in 2020, the All India Union of Forest Working Peoples (AIUFWP) filed a detailed objection to this policy shift after changes were made to the Environment Impact Assessment rules.
“Draft EIA 2020 gives industries, corporations, and public projects licence to loot our “Jal, Jungle and Jameen” “Water, Forest, and Land” which is antithetical to the idea of national interest : We find that a number of aspects of EIA has been modified to make it easier for construct and operate all kinds of projects, without proper assessment and procedures that stand to cause irreversible damage to people and places,” said AIUFWP member Ashok Choudhary.
On October 6, CPI(M) Polit Bureau member Brinda Karat requested the government not to go ahead with the proposals because “they are nothing but liberalisation to favour private interests over the interests of tribal communities, traditional forest dwellers and environmental concerns.”
Later, Kerala’s CPI Rajya Sabha MP Binoy Viswam also wrote to Union Environment Minister Bhupender Yadav requesting that the proposed amendments be translated into 22 languages to allow all people to respond and the deadline be extended by 12 weeks for public consultation.
Climate activist Disha Ravi on October 9 said that the government was “diluting” environmental laws and that this “trend” started with changes in the Environment Impact Assessment rules in 2020. According to the New Indian Express, Ravi cited the example of Adivasi activist Hidme Markram – arrested for protesting against coal mining in Dantewada, Chhattisgarh – and said that indigenous people and environmental defenders are “hurt every day for doing the very work which will protect all of us.”
On October 11, the Bhoomi Adhikar Andolan and the All India Union of Forest Working People (AIUFWP) will have a press conference at 4 PM to address the contentions with the government suggestions.