Why Indian conservationists are wary of proposed changes to the forest conservation act

The proposed amendments make it easier to clear forests for a range of commercial projects in a country with the world’s second highest rate of deforestation.

Native forests (right) stand alongside monoculture teak plantations (left) in protected areas of the Western Ghats, India.
Native forests (right) stand alongside monoculture teak plantations (left) in protected areas of the Western Ghats, India. Image: conservationindia.org

Eco-tourism projects planned in India in recent years have included a golf course, a recreational center, children’s parks, and a badminton court. Proposed safari parks include landscaped gardens with fountains, open-air theatres, leisure facilities, eateries, manmade ponds and lakes, eco-villages and entertainment parks. 

Such projects can in the future also be developed on forest land, according to the Indian government’s proposed amendments to the Forest Conservation Act (FCA), a law drafted in 1980. The changes exempt eco-tourism projects, zoos, and safari parks from requiring the government’s clearance for the conversion of forest land. 

It is one of the several aspects of India’s proposed amendments in the FCA that have left the country’s environmentalists and tribal rights activists concerned. They worry that the proposed changes will not only widen the scope for deforestation but also the displacement of tribal communities who dwell in the forests.  

The Bill was introduced in Parliament in March and later sent to a joint parliamentary committee (JPC) for further scrutiny.

However, the way the matter was referred to the JPC – which is headed by a member of parliament belonging to Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) – bypassing the parliamentary standing committee (PSC) on science and technology, environment, forests, and climate change, has itself created a ruckus. 

The PSC is headed by former environment minister Jairam Ramesh, a parliamentarian from the opposition party Congress. The Congress, and several other opposition parties, allege that the government bypassed the PSC to facilitate the dilution of the law.

Several conservation activists have opined that the amendment Bill should be seen as part of India’s gradual widening of scope for the development of forested areas. The Bill is an accumulation of numerous forms of legal relaxations that the government has introduced over the past few years to convert forests for a range of commercial projects.

The reforms include the October 2021 notification exempting eco-tourism projects with non-permanent infrastructure from the ambit of the FCA, the October 2021 notification that exempted forest land owned by public sector road construction agencies or the ministry of roadways and transport and the March 2022 notification, which similarly exempted the railways from forest clearance under the FCA.  

There also was the 2022 amendment of FCA rules, which did away with a clause that required gram sabha or a village communities’ consent for projects on forested land. 

Besides incorporating all such reforms, the Bill has added more. For example, even eco-tourism projects with permanent infrastructure would benefit from the blanket exemption given to “eco-tourism”.

While the joint parliamentary committee is obliged to hold public hearings in forested areas before deciding their fate, no such indication has come from the JPC as of now. The committee, on 3 May, invited persons interested to submit feedback to do so within 15 days.  

Wide range of exceptions 

“The exemption of about zoos, safari parks and eco-tourism facilities [from requiring clearance to develop forested land] is contrary to the National Forest Policy of 1988 and is also regressive and ultra vires to the FCA, as it relaxes the existing safeguards for commercial utilisation [of forests],” said a recent report submitted before the joint parliamentary committee. 

It was prepared by an 18-member high-level working group (HLWG) constituted by the Vidhi Centre for Legal Policy, a New Delhi-based think tank. The HLWG included conservation activists, retired forest officials, lawyers and scientists. 

According to Neema Pathak Broome of Maharashtra-based Kalpavriksh Environmental Action Group, one of the major concerns of the FCA amendment Bill is exempting the construction of “strategic linear projects of national importance and concerning national security” from seeking clearance to convert forest land that are situated within 100 kilometres of an international border. 

This is because large parts of forest areas lie within 100 km of international borders, especially in Himalayan states such as Uttarakhand, Arunachal Pradesh and Kashmir. 

“Security-related projects are necessary, but giving them a blanket exception from the FCA procedures is dangerous and unacceptable. Local communities are resisting many planned road projects,” Broome said, adding that such projects cause considerable ecological damage.     

A number of conservationists have pointed out that protecting remaining forest cover should top India’s list of priorities, as the country has seen the highest rate of deforestation of almost any country, according to a report published in March. 

Between 1990 and 2000, India lost 384,000 hectares of forests. The country lost 668,400 ha of forest cover between 2015 and 2020. Only Brazil lost more forest cover than India in that time frame.

According to conservation activist Joseph Hoover of the United Conservation Movement (UCM), a non-government organisation based in Bengaluru, the National Forest Policy 1988 set a guideline for the country to retain a minimum of 33 per cent of its total geographical area to be forested. But India has converted over 88,903 hectares of forested land for non-forestry purposes over the last five years. In 2021, India was 24.62 per cent forest-covered.

Hoover pointed out that the insertion of section ‘1A’ endangers large tracts of forest land by giving blanket exemptions to defence projects and allowing the conversion of considerable forest plots along rail and road networks.

Of the total forest lost over the last five years, most gave way to road construction – over 19,424 ha – followed by 18,847 ha for mining, 13,344 ha for irrigation, 9,469 ha for transmission lines, and 7,630 ha for defence projects, the UCM’s submissions to the joint parliamentary committee pointed out. 

The HLWG report said the Bill “undermines the need to protect and conserve old-growth forests, and glorifies the artificial plantations as carbon sinks.”

Arguing that preserving forests is more important than “compensating” with aforestation, it said that compensatory afforestation efforts in India “do not promote ecological restoration and therefore do not recreate natural biodiversity,” which results in the loss of ecosystem services that forests provide, such as clean air, water and soil.

According to government data, nearly 1 million hectares of forest land had been converted since the enactment of FCA 1980 and compensatory afforestation has taken place over about the same land area. 

Diluting judicial guidelines 

Broome said that the FCA amendment Bill has to be seen in conjunction with last year’s amendments to the FCA rules, which anulled the mandatory requirement of village communities’ consent for projects to be approved in forested areas. 

“People inhabit large parts of our forests in India. In some places, they have already established their rights under the Forest Rights Act (FRA) of 2006, which empowers the gram sabhas to give consent to a forestry project. However, the current FCA amendment Bill makes no mention of FRA and the Panchayat Extension to Scheduled Areas (PESA) Act of 1996 that deals with tribal rights over forests and resources,” she told Eco-Business

In its submission, Himdhara, a conservation collective based in the north Indian Himalayan state of Himachal Pradesh, raised the same issue. 

“From Ladakh to Arunachal, these areas also happen to be tribal districts where Indigenous communities have their rights under the FRA of 2006, which are still in the process of being settled. Any land use change and forest conversion will have to be carried out with the gram sabha‘s consent. This provision cannot be overridden,” they wrote

In the past, several court rulings have mandated village communities’s consent for projects requiring the conversion of forest lands in tribals areas.  

Himdhara’s submission pointed out that the Himalayan states have almost 250,000 km2 of recorded forests and that about two-thirds of the Himalayan region’s geographical area may be classified as forest, going by the supreme court of India’s landmark 1996 judgment. 

In the absence of a clear definition of forests in the FCA, the apex court had categorically stated that the provisions of the FCA “must apply to all forests irrespective of the nature of ownership or classification.” 

But the amendment Bill proposes to bring within its ambit only the land notified as forest under the Indian Forests Act of 1927 and lands recorded by the government as forest “on or after 1980”.

Conservationists argue that this leaves vast tracts of forests that the states are yet to record – the insertion of “on or after 1980” creates confusion, as it could be interpreted as exempting land recorded as forest before the cut-off date.

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