Problems & Criticisms with the Forest Conservation Bill
Tags: GS 2 Government Policies & Interventions GS 3 Conservation
- The government introduced The Forest (Conservation), Amendment Bill, 2023 to amend The Forest (Conservation) Act, 1980, in Lok Sabha.
- The proposed amendments to the Act are criticised for undermining its fundamental intent.
Background of the legislation:
The Forest (Conservation) Act, 1980
- Following independence, immense tracts of forested land were designated as reserved and protected forests and placed under the jurisdiction of state forest departments. However, many forested regions were omitted, and non-forested areas were classified as “forest” lands. Extensive ground surveys were intended to identify the anomalies, but the process remained inconclusive.
Apex Court’s suspension order, 1996
- In 1996, the Supreme Court halted the nationwide felling of trees and ruled that the FC Act would apply to all land parcels that were either recorded as ‘forest’ or resembled the dictionary definition of forest. This comprehensive order helped halt the rampant deforestation of non-forest land. However, the edict also excluded from forest records vast areas that were already used for agriculture or as homesteads.
The Forest (Conservation) Amendment Bill, 2023:
Restrictions on activities in forest:
- The Act restricts the de-reservation of forest land or its use for non-forest purposes;
- Such restrictions may be lifted with the prior approval of the central government.
- Non-forest uses include the cultivation of horticultural commodities and all other uses besides reforestation.
Assigning of land through a lease or otherwise
- Under the Act, a state government or any authority must obtain prior sanction from the central government before assigning forest land through a lease or otherwise to a non-government-owned organisation (such as a private person, agency, authority, or corporation).
Building forest carbon stock & improving livelihood
- The primary objective of the proposed modifications is to increase forest carbon stocks through plantation expansion.
- The Bill discusses keeping up with “dynamic changes in the ecological, strategic, and economic aspirations of the nation” and “improving the livelihoods of forest-dependent communities.”
- By limiting the purview of the Act, the scope of the amendments is reduced to encouraging plantations to achieve carbon neutrality.
- In fact, compared to stable natural forests, the rate of carbon production in rapidly expanding plantations is higher.
- Conveniently, India does not distinguish between forests and plantations for the purpose of increasing the country’s green cover, so both forest expansion and plantation expansion contribute equally.
- The bill also seeks to make land available to developers so that they can fulfil their legal obligation to engage in compensatory afforestation in lieu of forest land diverted for development purposes.
- If the scope of the FC Act is narrowed, fewer projects will be required to acquire forest clearance, which is viewed as a “barrier” by the vast majority of developers inside and outside the government. However, it will also help developers obtain forest clearance when necessary.
- Compensatory afforestation on equivalent non-forest land or, if non-forest land is unavailable, on degraded forest land twice the size of the diverted forest area is a key condition for forest clearance.
Issues & criticisms:
Removing the forest protection
- Instead of concluding the demarcation process on the ground, the amendment bill seeks to limit the applicability of the FC Act to land classified as ‘forest’ This will have the effect of removing the protection of the Act from millions of hectares of forest-like land that has not been designated as such.
How much area will be affected?
- For an idea of the scale, consider the latest State of Forests Report (SFR 2021), which records India’s forest cover as 713,789 sq km.
- Of this, nearly 28% or 197,159 sq km — roughly the size of Gujarat — is not recorded as ‘forest’.
Freeing up the land
- The bill attempts to achieve both goals (increase forest carbon stock and afforestation) by limiting the applicability of the FC Act and by releasing land that is presently classified as undocumented forests.
No specific conditions for denying
- There are no specific conditions laid by the environment ministry for outrightly denying permission for deforestation for development projects.
- For example, indiscriminately planting mangroves on mudflats which don’t naturally have mangroves to act as a buffer from storms.
- Destroying grasslands and open natural ecosystems for solar parks.
- What this means is that in addition to livelihood impacts, biodiversity impacts, and hydrological impacts, the climate impacts of such development projects also cannot adequately be ‘compensated’ by compensatory afforestation.
Affecting indigenous communities
- Any review of the FC Act presents an opportunity to make appropriate concessions for land that has historically been under the jurisdiction of indigenous and forest communities.
- Even after the enactment of the Forest Rights Act in 2006, their consent to the conversion of forest land for development projects has been progressively eroded.
- Currently, they may have no say in the development of extensive plantations on land upon which their communities depend.
Choosing plantation over forests
- Forests are much more than a mere collection of trees. Unlike man-made plantations, natural forests perform a range of ecosystem services that are key to the survival and well-being of the millions of species that they support and also provide direct livelihood and subsistence to crores of people.
- According to research, natural ecosystems store more carbon.
- It has been known for some time that creating single-species plantations in, say, Haryana does not compare to a natural sal forest lost to a development project in, say, Central Indian forests in terms of biodiversity, local livelihoods, hydrological services, and sequestered carbon.
Daily Mains Question
[Q] The forest conservation bill’s emphasis on ‘tradeable vertical carbon repositories’ may jeopardise the purpose of the act, which is to protect and preserve India’s forests. Consider recently proposed amendments to the Forest Conservation Act and provide an analysis.