List of Contents
- What are the Forest Conservation Rules?
- What are the provisions of the Forest Rights Act, 2006 with respect to diversion of forest land?
- What are the provisions of the new Forest Conservation Rules?
- How well has the Forest Conservation Act (FCA) been implemented so far?
- What is the significance of new Forest Conservation Rules?
- What are the concerns associated with the new Rules?
- What lies ahead?
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The Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change (MoEFCC) has notified the Forest Conservation Rules, 2022 under the Forest Conservation Act. The Union Government has updated the rules in order to improve the efficiency of forest diversion and streamline the process. However many experts have criticized the new rules. They say that the new rules will let private developers cut down forests without ensuring the consent of the forest dwellers, a change that violates a provision of the Forest Rights Act, 2006.
What are the Forest Conservation Rules?
The Forest Conservation Rules deal with the implementation of the Forest Conservation Act (FCA), 1980. They prescribe the procedure to be followed for diversion of forest land for non-forestry uses such as road construction, highway development, railway lines, and mining.
The broad aims of the Forest Conservation Act are to protect forest and wildlife, act as a check on the State Governments’ attempts to divert forest land for commercial projects and strive to increase the area under forests.
For forest land beyond 5 hectares, approval for diverting land must be given by the Union Government. This is through a specially constituted committee, called the Forest Advisory Committee (FAC).
The Committee examines whether the user agency has made a convincing case for the upheaval of that specific parcel of land. It also examines whether users have a plan in place to ensure that the damage from felling of trees in that area and denuding the local landscape will be minimal. The Committee also ensures that diversion of land doesn’t cause damage to wildlife habitat.
Once the FAC is convinced and approves (or rejects a proposal), it is forwarded to the concerned State Government where the land is located. The State Government then has to ensure that provisions of the Forest Right Act, 2006 are duly complied.
The FAC approval also means that the future users of the land must provide compensatory land for afforestation as well as pay the net present value (ranging between ₹10-15 lakh per hectare.)
What are the provisions of the Forest Rights Act, 2006 with respect to diversion of forest land?
The Forest Rights Act, 2006 requires the Governments to seek free, prior, and informed consent of forest dwellers before allowing a project on their traditional lands.
In 2009, the Environment Ministry passed an order mandating that proposals would not be entertained by the FAC unless there was a letter from the Union Government specifying that the forest rights in the place had been ‘settled’.
Further, the order made it mandatory to obtain written consent of the Gram Sabha for the diversion of forest.
What are the provisions of the new Forest Conservation Rules?
The rules shift the responsibility of the Union government to take the consent of Adivasis (before the approval of a project) onto the State Governments. It means that the burden to ensure the rights of Scheduled Tribes to their traditional forestlands is now with the State Governments.
A project, once approved by the FAC, will then be passed on to the State authorities who will collect the compensatory fund and process it for final approval. The new rules allow the Union Government to permit the clearing of a forest before consulting its inhabitants.
The handover of the forest can be approved and the Union Government can collect payment for compensatory afforestation from the private developer even before the State Government ensures consent of the forest dwellers.
The rules make a provision for private parties to cultivate plantations and sell them as land to companies who need to meet compensatory afforestation targets.
How well has the Forest Conservation Act (FCA) been implemented so far?
A 2019 analysis by the Legal Initiative for Forests and Environment has found that the FAC generally approves land for diversion without examining questions around consent as it relies on the State Government to ensure that this is done.
In the first six months of 2019, out of the 240 proposals, 193 proposals were recommended, 40 proposals were deferred for later consideration and 7 were rejected.
Recommendation for 193 proposals meant 9,220.64 hectares of forest land were recommended for diversion for non-forestry purposes such as roads, railways, mining, irrigation, infrastructure and hydel power.
What is the significance of new Forest Conservation Rules?
First, the latest version of the rules consolidates changes to the Act over the years from various Amendments and Judicial rulings. This will give better clarity to the implementing agencies and general public, thereby preventing unnecessary diversion.
Second, according to the Union Government, the new rules ‘streamline’ the process of approvals. It will allow parallel processing of the proposals and eliminate the redundant processes. This will ensure speedier execution and prevent delays in implementation of projects thereby preventing cost overruns and withdrawal of proposals.
Third, the new rules expand the scope of compensatory afforestation lands by allowing private parties to cultivate plantations and sell them as land to companies who need to meet compensatory afforestation targets. This will solve the problems of the States who are unable to find land within their jurisdiction for compensatory purposes.
What are the concerns associated with the new Rules?
First, there is a lack of clarity regarding what happens to tribals and forest-dwelling communities whose land would be taken away for developmental work. Further, the wording of new rules implies that it is not mandatory to take the consent of Gram Sabha before diversion of forest.
Second, the new rules allow the Union Government to permit the clearing of a forest before consulting its inhabitants. This is akin to forced consent, the inhabitants will have no choice but to accept. Once forest clearance has been granted, no claims will be recognised and settled.
Third, the rules are being criticized as a tool to promote ease of doing business for a chosen few but will end the ‘ease of living’ for the many forest dwellers.
Fourth, the new rules were promulgated without any consultation and discussion with the stakeholders. This includes the Parliamentary Standing Committee on Science and Technology, Environment, Forests and Climate Change, the environmental conservation groups or the representatives of tribal communities who will be impacted.
What lies ahead?
First, The Forest Conservation Rules 2022 are to be placed for approval before the Lok Sabha and the Rajya Sabha. This would give the Union Government a chance to explain its stance in detail as well as allow opposition leaders to put forward their grievances.
Second, the wildlife groups and human rights groups must ensure that the government complies with all the environment laws and regulations. They must come forward to give constructive feedback on the new forest conservation rules, 2022.
Third, going forward the Government should imbibe the philosophy of ‘One Health’ wherein decisions are taken by balancing the impact on humans, animals and overall environment.
The new Forest Conservation Rules should be reviewed after constructive debates and discussions with the concerned stakeholders. They must be tuned to reflect upon the indispensable significance of tribal and forest rights and the Government’s duty to protect the same.