Proposed Changes to Forest Conservation Act

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    • The Union Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change has proposed several amendments to the Forest (Conservation) Act, 1980 (FCA), which may enable infrastructure projects to come up in the forest areas more easily.

    About 

    • The government has proposed absolving agencies involved in national security projects and border infrastructure projects from obtaining prior forest clearance from the Centre as part of amendments to the existing Forest Conservation Act (FCA). 
      • The FCA that first came in 1980 and was amended in 1988, requires such permission.

    Forest (Conservation) Act, 1980

    • The FCA is the principal legislation that regulates deforestation in the country.
    • It prohibits the felling of forests for any “non-forestry” use without prior clearance by the central government.
    • The clearance process includes seeking consent from local forest rights-holders and from wildlife authorities. 
    • The Centre is empowered to reject such requests or allow them with legally binding conditions.
    • In a landmark decision in 1996, the Supreme Court had expanded the coverage of FCA to all areas that satisfied the dictionary definition of a forest; earlier, only lands specifically notified as forests were protected by the enforcement of the FCA.
    • The FCA is brief legislation with only five sections.
      •  Section 1 defines the extent of coverage of the law, Section 2 restricts activities in forest areas, and the rest deals with the creation of advisory committees, powers of rule-making and penalties.

    Key Features of the proposal 

    • The proposed amendments seek to make additions and changes to Sections 1 and 2 of the Act.
      • New section 1A:  In the proposed new section 1A, a provision has been added to exempt the application of FCA on forest land that is “used for underground exploration and production of oil and natural gas through Extended Reach Drilling (ERD) originating outside forest land.”
    • The exemption is subject to terms and conditions laid down by the central government.
    • A new explanation added to Section 2: It states that “survey, reconnaissance, prospecting, exploration or investigation” for future activity in the forest will not be classified as a “non-forestry activity”.
      •  This means such survey works would not require any prior permission from the government.
      • The only exception is if the activity falls within a wildlife sanctuary, national park or tiger reserve.
    • Exemption:  Land acquired by the railways for establishing a rail line or a road by a government agency before 25.10.1980 (the day the FCA was passed) would be exempted from seeking a forest clearance — if they put the land to the same use for which it was acquired.
      • It proposes to exempt plantation of native species of palm and oil-bearing trees from the definition of “non-forest purpose”.
    • Removal of Clause: Section 2(iii) of the FCA requires the central government’s approval before assigning forest lands on lease to any private person/corporation/organisation not owned or controlled by the central government. 
    • This clause, however, has purportedly been deleted in the proposed amendment which means state governments can issue leases for the use of forest land without the Centre’s prior approval.
    • Limiting the coverage of the Supreme Court’s decision in Godavarman:
    • The Supreme Court in T.N. Godavarman Thirumulkpad v. Union Of India & Ors. (Godavarman) on December 12, 1996, had held that the meaning of “forest” under the FCA would include not only statutorily recognised forests; it would include any area recorded as forest in government records, regardless of ownership.
      • The restrictions in the FCA would, therefore, be applicable to both de jure and de facto forests.
    • The proposed amendment purportedly seeks to reduce the scope of this judgment by limiting the applicability of the FCA to only such land that has been:
      • Declared or notified as forest under the Indian Forest Act, 1927
      • Recorded as forest land in the government record prior to 25 October 1980, with the exception of such land if its use has been changed from forest to non-forest purpose prior to 12 December 1996
      • Identified as “forest” by a state government expert committee up to one year from the date of the amendment.
    • Punishment: The Environment Ministry proposes adding a clause to make punishments under the modified Act punishable with simple imprisonment for a period which may extend to one year and make it cognisable and non-bailable. 
      • They also propose provisions for penal compensation to make good for the damages already done to trees in forest land.

    Source: TH