Parliamentary Committee Gives Nod to Proposed Dilution of Forest Rights

Proposed amendments to pivotal 1980 law draw objections from forest rights activists and critics as it gains support from parliamentary committee

A parliamentary committee, formulated for reviewing the contentious amendments to the Forest (Conservation) Act, 1980, has given its assent to the amended Bill without any objections. The committee’s draft report is expected to be presented in Parliament during the upcoming monsoon session starting on July 20, 2023.

The Forest (Conservation) Amendment Bill, 2023 is a proposed amendment that aims to modify the crucial 1980 law which was initially enacted to prevent indiscriminate conversion of forest land for non-forestry purposes. The Act gives the central government crucial power and mandate to ensure proper compensation for any diversion of forest land for non-forestry uses. The provision is available even for land that may not be officially classified as ‘forest’ in government records.

While the Act has undergone several amendments over the past decades, primarily focused on extending protection to larger areas resembling forests, the latest set of proposed amendments set it apart from its earlier trajectory. According to the government, these amendments are necessary to eliminate ambiguities and bring clarity regarding the Act’s applicability to various lands.

Among the proposed amendments, some specify exemptions from the Act, while others actively promote cultivating plantations on non-forest land, potentially contributing to increased tree cover, carbon sequestration, and supporting India’s goal of achieving net-zero emissions by 2070. Furthermore, the amendments aim to remove the Act’s restrictions on developing infrastructure that would aid national security and create livelihood opportunities for communities residing on the fringes of forests.

The proposed amendments to the Forest (Conservation) Act, 1980 have faced objections on various grounds, including concerns about diluting the Supreme Court’s 1996 Godavarman case judgement that extended protection to extensive forest areas, even if they were not officially recorded as forests. Additionally, objections were raised about the exemption from forest clearance for construction projects within 100 km of international borders or the Line of Control in geographically sensitive regions.

The joint committee’s report acknowledges the objections raised by various stakeholders who argue that the amendments dilute forest protection measures. The Environment Ministry however has refuted these claims by asserting that the proposed provisions in the Bill guard against such situations.

Resistance was also encountered regarding the proposal to change the name of the 1980 law from the Forest (Conservation) Act to the Van (Sanrakshan Evam Samvardhan) Adhiniyam, translating to the Forest (Conservation and Augmentation) Act. Critics argued that the new name was exclusionary and neglected large sections of the population in both South India and the North-East due to linguistic and cultural diversity. However the Environment Ministry in turn defended the name change, stating that it emphasised the need to conserve and augment forests, as forest conservation involves more than just granting clearances.

These amendments were introduced in the Lok Sabha in March 2023, and a draft copy has been available for public comment since June 2022. This early disclosure sparked opposition from various quarters, including objections from some northeastern states that raised concerns about unilateral land acquisition for defence purposes. Environmental groups also voiced opposition, claiming that the amendments removed central protection for areas classified as ‘deemed forests’ (forested areas not officially recognized as forests), potentially compromising them by permitting activities such as tourism in these areas.

The Lok Sabha motioned to refer the Bill to a joint committee, which was seconded by the Rajya Sabha. Jairam Ramesh, Congress spokesperson and chair of the Standing Committee on Science, Environment, and Forests, expressed dissent over the decision to refer the Bill to a joint committee instead of the standing committee. The 31-member joint committee consists of 21 members from the Lok Sabha and 10 from the Rajya Sabha, with 18 members belonging to the ruling BJP.

India’s forest cover is defined as land over one hectare in size with a tree canopy density exceeding 10%. While India’s total forest cover has increased to 38,251 sq. km from 2001 to 2021, the rise primarily occurred in open forests with tree canopy density ranging from 10% to 40%. However, dense forest cover has decreased during this period. The proposed amendments encouraging plantation and cultivation may lead to increased tree cover but are unfortunately unlikely to reverse the loss of dense forests.



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