Forest Conservation Bill 2023: too many exemptions, discretion to Centre The proposed bill makes forest clearance easier and exempts many categories of land from the purview of the Act
31, Mar 2023 | CJP Team
The Forest (Conservation) Amendment Bill, 2023 was introduced in the Lok Sabha on Wednesday, March 29 and it has sent alarm bells ringing, with concerns raised by forest rights activists and environmentalists alike. Let us have a look at the primary concerns raised about the objective and implication of the Bill.
The first and foremost objection to the bill was that the Bill has been referred to a select committee of the Parliament in Lok Sabha. Congress MP Jairam Ramesh objected to this move saying that the Bill should have been sent to the parliamentary standing committee on science, technology, environment and forest that he heads. He said it was intentionally sent to the select committee as the same would be headed by a Member of Parliament (MP) handpicked by the Prime Minister. “By referring the Forest (Conservation) Amendment Bill, 2023 to a Joint Committee, the Union Government is deliberately by-passing the Standing Committee which would have subjected the legislation to detailed examination with the full participation of all stakeholders,” Ramesh wrote to the Rajya Sabha Chairman, Jagdeep Dhankar. He pointed out that no opposition members from any prominent party like Congress were included in the select committee.
The Godavarman case reference
The Bill in its ‘Statement of Objects and Reasons’ states that the judgement in T.N. Godavarman Thirumulpad vs. Union of India and others (1997) 2 SCC 267 (dated December 12, 1996) led to some misinterpretation of the Act and hence to remove these ambiguities, the amendment was being made. The bill dilutes the provisions of ‘deemed forest’ as described in the Godavarman case, where any land which is recorded as forest in government records requires ‘Forest Clearance’. As per the bill, only those lands which as recorded as forests on or after October 25, 1980 will be considered as requiring forest clearance. This case defined forest as all those areas that were recorded as a forest on in area irrespective of ownership, recognition and classification.
Exemptions under the Bill
The proposed amendment states:
‘1A. (1) The following land shall be covered under the provisions of this Act,
(a) the land that has been declared or notified as a forest in accordance
with the provisions of the Indian Forest Act, 1927 or under any other law for the time being in force;
(b) the land that is not covered under clause (a), but has been recorded in Government record as forest, as on or after the 25th October, 1980
Debatiyo Sinha, an ecologist working on environment policies, pointed out that this meant that this means a large chunk of forest land is exempted from the Act effectively exposing it for government use and non-forest use. “This is major exemption & threaten a significant area of forest land in the country, especially because majority of such recorded forest lands were originally transferred to forest department during the abolishment of Zamindari system,” he said.
He said that while the Godavarman judgment safeguarded such ‘recorded forests’, the bill seeks to dilute this definition by freeing up more forest land so that it can be exempted from the purview of the Act. It also exempts such forest land which is proposed for ‘public utility projects’.
Public utility services include public transport services, postal services, telephone services, power facilities, lighting services, water facilities, insurance services.
Next comes the issue of forest clearance. The bill further exempts the following categories of land from the purview of the Act:
(a) such forest land situated alongside a rail line or a public road maintained by the Government, which provides access to a habitation, or to a rail, and roadside amenity up to a maximum size of 0.10 hectare in each case;
(b) such tree, tree plantation or reafforestation raised on lands that are not specified in clause (a) or clause (b) of sub-section (1); and
(c) such forest land,—
(i) as is situated within a distance of one hundred kilometres along international borders or Line of Control or Line of Actual Control, as the case may be, proposed to be used for construction of strategic linear project of national importance and concerning national security; or
- ii) up to ten hectares, proposed to be used for construction of security related infrastructure; or
(iii) as is proposed to be used for construction of defence related project or a camp for paramilitary forces or public utility projects, as may be specified by the Central Government, the extent of which does not exceed five hectares in a Left Wing Extremism affected area as may be notified by the Central Government.
It is clear from the provision above that the government has conveniently exempted all kinds of land that it has found suitable for use an exempted it form requiring forest clearance.
Further exemptions also include ‘silviculture’, establishment of zoo/safari, ecotourism facilities included in Management Plan; ‘any other like purposes’ ordered/ specified by the Centre. The last clause which states “any other like purposes, which the Central Government may, by order, specify” gives wide powers to the Central government to tweak these exemptions as and when necessary without having to go through the legislative route and simply handing over such an important decision to delegated legislation.
“This promotes commercialisation of Reserve Forests & irreversible disturbance to wildlife,” said Sinha.
In the first section itself, the bill name is changed to ‘Van (Sanrakshan Evam Samvardhan) Adhiniyam, 1980’ making the name vernacular, accessible to mainly the northern part of India. While the Act and the content are completely in English the bid to change the name into Hindi is unnecessary and a bid towards imposing the Hindi language on the entire country.
Constitutional duty to safeguard forests
It is the constitutional guideline under the Directive principles of State policy (DPSP) that the government is required to protect the environment and the forests. The Constitution has deemed the government to the be the guardian of forests and through this proposed bill, the government seeks to misuse this guardianship and this massive responsibility. Arguably DPSP are not enforceable however they are the guiding principles and have been utilised so by former governments to formulate laws relating to land reforms, minimum wages, right to education and so on.
Article 48A of the Constitution states:
48A. Protection and improvement of environment and safeguarding of forests and wild life The State shall endeavour to protect and improve the environment and to safeguard the forests and wild life of the country
“Forest” was enumerated in the State list under the Constitution but the 42nd Amendment Act brought it under the Concurrent list making it the joint responsibility of the State and Centre to make laws on forests. The Forest Conservation Act, 1980 was enacted to prevent indiscriminate deforestation, which was a major concern.
Forest cover in India
During the period 1951-52 to 1979-80, 4.3 million hectares of forest land was officially diverted to non-forest purposes. During the seven years, 1975-82. about nine million hectares of forests were lost.
As per Global Forest Watch, India lost 127 Kilo hectares of land in 2021
Source: Global Forest Watch
Source: Global Forest Watch
The proposed Bill may be read here:
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