Objections overruled; Forest Bill goes to House unchanged

Context: A Parliamentary committee, set up to examine proposed amendments to the Forest (Conservation) Act, 1980, has endorsed the amendment, Bill. 

Forest Conservation Act, 1980

  • FRA was enacted to provide for the conservation of forests and for matters connected therewith or ancillary or incidental thereto. 
  • It provides that prior permission of the Central Government is required for de-reservation of forest land, use of forest land for non-forest purposes, assigning of forest land by way of lease to private entities and for clearing of naturally grown trees for the purpose of reafforestation.
  • FRA empowers the Centre to require that any forest land diverted for non-forestry purposes be duly compensated.
  • The clearance process involves seeking permission from local forest authorities or wildlife authorities. Under this act, the Centre is eligible to reject a request or allow it with legally binding conditions.

Supreme Court Case

Godavarman case

The Supreme court in the Godavarman Case 1996 held that forest would not only cover the statutorily recognised forest under this act. It would recognise any area recorded in government record regardless of the ownership. 

Forest (Conservation) Amendment Bill, 2023

The bill is introduced to amend the Forest (Conservation) Act, 1980, which envisages to remove ambiguity in the applicability of the provisions of said Act, to promote plantation in non-forest areas and to conserve the forests.

Provisions of the Bill

  • The Bill amends the FRA to make it applicable to certain types of land.
    • These include land notified as a forest under the Indian Forest Act, 1927 or in government records after the 1980 Act came into effect.  
    • The Act will not be applicable for land converted to non-forest use before December 12, 1996.
  • It also exempts certain types of land from the purview of the Act.
    • These include land within 100 km of India’s border needed for national security projects, small roadside amenities, and public roads leading to a habitation.
  • In the FRA the state government requires prior approval of the central government to assign any forest land to a private entity.
    • The Bill extends this to all entities, and allows the assignment to be made on terms and conditions specified by the central government.
  • The FRA specifies some activities that can be carried out in forests, such as establishing check posts, fencing, and bridges. The Bill also allows running zoos, safaris and eco-tourism facilities.

Issue raised against the bill

  • The changed definition of the land may go against the Supreme Court’s judgement in Godavarman case on preventing deforestation. 
  • Exempting land near border areas for national security projects may adversely impact the forest cover and wildlife in north-eastern states.
  • A blanket exemption for projects like zoos, eco-tourism facilities, and reconnaissance surveys may adversely affect forest land and wildlife.
  • There were even objection to the proposal to change the name of the 1980 law from the Forest (Conservation) Act to the Van (Sanrakshan Evam Samvardhan) Adhiniyam, which literally translates to Forest (Conservation and Augmentation) Act The objections were on the grounds that it was “non-inclusive” and left out “vast tracks of population both in South India and also in the North-East.”  
  • This has invited opposition from multiple quarters, including some north-eastern States who objected that vast tracts of forest land would be unilaterally taken away for defence purposes.

The activities exempted by the proposed bill may help in economic development may even contribute to national priorities such as energy security and industrial growth. However, there may be a need to balance -economic benefits of such activities with that of conserving forests. Rather than giving a banket exemption to central government to determine the exempted activities a balance and inclusive approach can be discussed before finalising the bill. 

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