Explained: Decoding the Forest (Conservation) Amendment Bill, 2023 which recently got passed by Lok Sabha

The Bill seeks to modify the Forest (Conservation) Act, 1980 which restricts the diversion of forested lands for non-forest purposes including clearing of any forest land or its portion for mining, agriculture or infrastructural projects. It is passed it Lok Sabha but is yet to be debated and passed in the Upper House and achieve President's assent before it becomes an Act or the law.

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Explained: Decoding the Forest (Conservation) Amendment Bill, 2023 which recently got passed by  Lok Sabha

The Bill allows the establishment of zoological parks, safaris, and ecotourism in these exempted areas.

In the ongoing Monsoon Session of the Parliament, the Lok Sabha passed the controversial Forest (Conservation) Amendment Bill, 2023, yesterday, on July 26, by oral voting.

The recently passed Bill seeks to amend the Forest (Conservation) Act, 1980 in a way that it extends development activities and undertakes projects to boost national security on land notified as a forest under the Indian Forest Act, 1927 as well as those forested lands in government records after the 1980 Act came into effect. It also seeks to exempt specific types of forested land from the purview of Forest (Conservation) Act, 1980.

Union Minister for Environment, Forest & Climate Change, Bhupender Yadav while moving the Bill claimed that the existing Forest Conservation Act, 1980 has ambiguity in the definition of forest and the amendment aims to bring clarity.

The exempted forested lands under the Forest (Conservation) Amendment Bill, 2023 includes:

  • 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.
  • ​​Such trees, tree plantation or reafforestation raised on lands that are not 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 or has been recorded in Government record as forest, as on or after the 25th October, 1980.
  • Such forest land, 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 projects of national importance and concerning national security.
Also Read: The Long Wait: 16 years on, only 50% claims settled under the Forest Rights Act
  • Forested land up to 10 hectares proposed to be used for construction of security related infrastructure.
  • Forested land proposed for construction of defence-related projects 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.
  • The Bill allows the establishment of zoological parks, safaris, and ecotourism in these exempted areas. Furthermore, the Central government is authorised to give directions to any relevant authority within the Central or State government, or Union Territory administration, as well as any recognised organisation, entity, or body under the State or Central Government, “as deemed necessary for the effective implementation of this Act.”

Amendment in contrast with the Forest Conservation Act, 1980

The 1980 Act restricts the diversion of forested land for non-forest purposes such as mining, infrastructure projects, or agriculture.

It clarifies that by “non-forest purpose”, the Act means the breaking up or clearing of any forest land or portion thereof for — the cultivation of tea, coffee, spices, rubber, palms, oil-bearing plants, horticultural crops or medicinal plants or any purpose other than reafforestation.

What are the concerns?

Concerns have been raised that exempting land from the applicability of the 1980 Act near border areas for national security projects may adversely impact the eco-sensitive zones and biodiversity in the North-Eastern, Himalayan and Jammu and Kashmir region. This could also mean exploitation of forested land for non-forest purposes.

The passed Bill can possibly endanger the forest dwelling communities which might be adversely affected from the degradation of these ecosystems and also lose decision-making rights provided to them under Forest Rights Act, 2006 [FRA].

FRA recognises the rights of the forest-dwelling tribal communities and other traditional forest dwellers to forest resources, on which these communities were dependent for a variety of needs, including livelihood, habitation and other socio-cultural needs.

It also empowers the forest dwellers to access and use the forest resources in the manner that they were traditionally accustomed to, to protect, conserve and manage forests, and protect forest dwellers from unlawful evictions.

Also Read: Forest Rights Act: Odisha leads the way with a separate FRA budget, and updation of land records

The Bill excludes two categories of land from the purview of the Act — firstly, the land that was recorded as forest before October 25, 1980 but not notified as a forest. This provision contradicts a Supreme Court judgement in T.N. Thirumulpad vs. Union of India and others, 1996, on preventing deforestation.

The 1996 judgement had broadened the definition of forest to include not just land classified as forest under forest or revenue departments, but also those that are not forests according to the definition of a forest.

These are classified as ‘deemed forests’, which many states still haven’t notified. This exemption would mean that many forests not notified as forests so far can bypass the purview of Forest (Conservation) Act, 1980.

Secondly, the land which changed from forest-use to non-forest-use before December 12, 1996 is also exempted from the application of the 1980 Act. This would mean that entities using these diverted lands could bypass the 1980 Act which has restrictions on cutting down trees and compensatory afforestation.

The Bill was introduced in Lok Sabha in March, 2023 and thereafter referred to a 31 member joint parliamentary committee which received flak from environment activists who in letters sent to the Joint Parliamentary Committee had highlighted that the Bill, in the current form, would expose 50,000 acres of the Aravallis to commercialisation.

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