Forest law amendments: Rich in rhetoric, poor in substance

Source– The post is based on the article “Forest law amendments: Rich in rhetoric, poor in substance” published in “The Indian Express” on 2nd August 2023.

Syllabus: GS 3 – Environmental Conservation

News – The government is introducing the Forest (Conservation) Amendment Bill 2023.

What led to the introduction of the Forest Conservation Act, 1980?

It originated in the belief that state governments were very liberal in diversing forest land for non-forest activities, particularly for cultivation.

The 42nd constitutional amendment brought forests into the concurrent list. It enabled the passing of a central Act .

The Forest Conservation Act, 1980 (FCA) was introduced due to concerns that state governments were excessively allocating forest land for non-forest purposes.

It mandated that states should seek approval from the central government before diverting forests for non-forest activities.

What was the effectiveness of FCA in reductions of forest diversion?

In the beginning, there was a notable decrease in diversions. However, after 1991, the pressure to permit diversions for development projects grew. Only diversions for agriculture were restricted.

Despite this, the regulatory process did have some impact in slowing down diversions.

The compensatory afforestation requirement, while seeming significant, often resulted in failed plantations.

What was the stand of SC ON forest conservation and its impacts?

In 1996, the Supreme Court, in the TN Godavarman case, raised concerns about the consistent application of the Forest Conservation Act to all forested areas.

There were regions across the country where land covered by natural forests had not been officially classified as “forest” under any law. It led to unregulated diversion without FCA oversight.

The Court ruled that the actual vegetation present on the land should determine the applicability of the FCA. This decision led to the establishment of a new legal category known as “deemed forest” land.

What is the effectiveness of the Forest Rights Act in 2006 in forest conservation?

The Forest Rights Act in 2006 provided rights over the forests to the local community. In the Niyamgiri case in 2013, the Supreme Court affirmed the local community’s right.

However, the development lobby has consistently opposed such regulations. Since 2014, there has been a concerted effort to weaken the Forest Conservation Act (FCA) and other environmental regulations significantly.

A narrative emphasizing “delays in clearances” was constructed to exert pressure. The absence of clear thresholds or criteria in the FCA regarding permissible diversions was exploited opportunistically.

The Forest Advisory Committee was openly influenced to prioritize developmental and national security concerns above all else. Despite the Niyamgiri judgment, consent from local rights-holders was frequently disregarded.

In many instances, district collectors allegedly certified the absence of community rights, even when the process of community rights recognition under the Forest Rights Act (FRA) had not been initiated.

Moreover, “linear projects” like railways and highways were exempted from obtaining community consent by the Environment Ministry.

What are the issues with FCA Amendment Bill 2023?

One amendment restricts the scope once again to land that is officially “recorded as forest,” effectively. It nullifies the impact of the Godavarman order.

Another amendment grants complete exemption for “linear projects” categorized as “strategic projects of national importance and concerning national security” within 100 kilometers of the national border.

Almost anything can be labeled as “strategic” and of “national importance.”

A third amendment exempts security camps in districts affected by Maoist insurgency, despite the emerging issue of deforestation caused by such camps in the Bastar region.

A fourth amendment categorizes the establishment of zoos and safaris as still falling under a forestry purpose.

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