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Synopsis: Proposed legal amendments to the Indian Forest Act are in the right direction.
The environment ministry recently initiated the process to amend the existing forest legislation. It has been now put up in the public domain recently to invite stakeholders’ and state governments’ response.
Why was there a need to amend the Indian Forest Act?
An amendment to the obsolete Indian Forest Act has been due for a long while, especially since 1996, when a judgment by the Supreme Court changed the very fundamentals of the concept of forests and their governance.
The court had opined that any green patch that conformed to the “dictionary meaning” of the term “forest” be considered forest and governed accordingly. However, the judgement of the SC has become troublesome for some reasons.
With this, most kinds of land with a green canopy, regardless of their ownership, became “deemed forest”, requiring forest authorities’ prior permission before putting them to any use.
Public institutions like the railways and road departments, too, needed the forest ministry’s nod to utilise their spare land alongside rail tracks and roads if trees or other vegetation had come up there.
Strategically vital projects in border areas and elsewhere, too, had to go through the time-consuming process of getting necessary clearances.
What are the positives in the draft Indian Forest Act?
Firstly, the text does away with many of the contentious and thorny regulatory provisions of the previous drafts and can, with necessary changes, form the basis for the modification of this law.
Secondly, while decriminalizing minor offenses to reduce the load on public litigation, it proposes relatively high penalties for major infringements and also more stringent norms for forest conservation.
Thirdly, it seeks to introduce a novel concept of “pristine forests” where no non-forestry activity will be allowed under any circumstances.
Fourthly, the new draft seeks to introduce some significant and need-based reforms in the forest sector, which can potentially pave the way for forestry activities even on private lands. Most of the concerns related to curbs on harvesting, transit, and trade of the forest produce grown on private plots are proposed to be removed.
What are the contentious issues in the draft Indian Forest Act?
Exploring and extracting oil and natural gas from beneath the forest lands is proposed to be allowed by drilling holes from outside the forest areas without harming the underground water aquifers. This provision, however, may turn controversial as experts still differ on the efficacy of this technology.
The draft fails to lay due emphasis on promoting agro-forestry, which has a huge potential to expand green cover in rural areas, apart from generating additional income for the farmers.
What is the way forward?
Promoting tree plantations on private lands and agricultural farms has, indeed, become imperative now due to the lack of government or community lands for raising new forests.
Private participation is vital to meet the targets of covering 33% land with forests and creating a carbon sink to lock in 2.5-3 billion tonnes of carbon dioxide as stipulated under the Paris agreement on climate change.
The paramount need today is to strike a joint endeavour by the public and private sectors to achieve this key objective.
Source: This post is based on the article “Expanding Forest cover” published in Business Standard on 20th October 2021.