Debate over the new Forest Conservation Rules

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    Recently, the debate over the new Forest Conservation Rules brought in by the Central government is heating up ahead of Parliament’s monsoon session.

    • Latest version of the rules will be placed in the Parliament in the Monsoon Session as the law requires that the rules be placed before both the Houses.

    Forest Conservation Rules

    • About: The Forest Conservation Rules deal with the implementation of the Forest Conservation Act (FCA), 1980
    • Prescribes the procedure to be followed: For forest land to be diverted for non-forestry uses such as road construction, highway development, railway lines, and mining.
    • Aim: The Act ensures to:
      • Protect forest and wildlife, 
      • Put brakes on State governments’ attempts to hive off forest land for commercial projects and 
      • Striving to increase the area under forests.
    • Approval: 
      • For forest land beyond five hectares, approval for diverting land must be given by the Central government
      • This is via a specially constituted committee, called the Forest Advisory Committee (FAC).
      • This committee examines whether the user agency, or those who have requested forest land, have made a convincing case for the upheaval of that specific parcel of land:
        • Whether they have a plan in place to ensure that the ensuing damage:
          • From felling of trees in that area, 
          • Denuding the local landscape will be minimal and 
        • The said piece of land doesn’t cause damage to wildlife habitat.
      • Once the FAC is convinced and approves (or rejects a proposal), it is forwarded to the concerned State government where the land is located.
      • The State Government then has to ensure that provisions of the Forest Right Act, 2006, a separate Act that protects the rights of forest dwellers and tribals over their land, are complied with.
    • Compensation: The FAC approval also means that the future users of the land must provide compensatory land for afforestation as well as pay the net present value (ranging between ?10-15 lakh per hectare.)

    What do the updated rules say?

    • The Scheduled Tribes and Other Traditional Forest Dwellers (Recognition of Forest Rights) Act, 2006, popularly known as the Forest Rights Act, 2006, confers land and livelihood rights both individual and community to tribal, Dalit and other families living in forest areas. 
      • Under the law, FRA compliance is mandatory before clearance is accorded for diversion of forest land for non-forest purposes
    • The Forest (Conservation) Rules, 2022, delinks mandatory FRA compliance for seeking forest clearance for infrastructure projects and puts onus on states/UTs to ensure that it is complied with before the forest land is handed over to the project proponent. 
    • The rules make a provision for private parties to cultivate plantations and sell them as land to companies who need to meet compensatory forestation targets.
    • Bypassing Gram Sabha: 
      • Earlier, state bodies would forward documents to the Forest Advisory Committee (FAC) that would also include information on the status of whether the forest rights of locals in the area were settled.
      • After 2009, the Environment Ministry passed an order mandating that proposals would not be entertained by the FAC unless there was a letter from the State specifying that the forest rights in the place had been “settled” and the Gram Sabha, or the governing body in villages in the area, had given their written consent to the diversion of forest.
      • However, there have been a series of orders by the Environment Ministry over the years, and frequently opposed by the Ministry of Tribal Affairs, that have sought to skirt the necessity for consent from the gram sabha.
      • The new rules formally codify this and say that a project, once approved by the FAC, will then be passed on to the State authorities who will collect the compensatory fund and land, and process it for final approval.

    the government’s position

    • New rules do not dilute or infringe on the provisions of the Forest Rights Act, 2006
    • Will allow parallel processing of the proposals and eliminate the redundant processes.
    • States/UTs can ensure compliance of the Forest Rights Act (FRA) “at any stage”
    • The new Rules streamline the process of approvals. The rules make a provision for private parties to cultivate plantations and sell them as land to companies who need to meet compensatory afforestation targets.
    • It will help India increase forest cover as well as solve the problems of the States of not finding land within their jurisdiction for compensatory purposes. 

    Criticism / opposition’s stand:

    • Diluting FRA, 2006: It allowed forest land to be diverted to industry without settling questions of the rights of forest dwellers and tribals who resided on those lands. 
    • Will disempower forest tribals: The latest point of contention is the absence of wording, in the updated Forest Conservation Rules, of what happens to tribals and forest-dwelling communities whose land would be hived off for developmental work.
    • Once forest clearance is accorded, dwellers’ claims of resettlement will be ignored.
    • States will be under greater pressure from the Centre to accelerate the land diversion process.

    Implementation of Forest Conservation Act so far

    • A 2019 analysis by the Legal Initiative for Forests and Environment has found that the FAC generally approves land for diversion without examining questions around consent as it relies on the State government to ensure that this is done.
    • In the first six months of 2019, of the 240 proposals that were considered for diversion of forest land for non-forestry purposes:
      • 193 proposals were recommended, 
      • 40 proposals were deferred for later consideration and 
      • 7 rejected. 
    • Recommendation for 193 proposals meant 9,220.64 hectares of forest land were recommended for diversion for non-forestry purposes such as roads, railways, mining, irrigation, infrastructure and hydel power.

    Conclusion and Way Forward 

    • Proper and intensive consultation with stakeholders should be held before bringing any amendments.
    • These Rules must be changed with constitutionally and legally-bound procedures.

    Source: TH