The Forest Conservation Bill – Issues & Criticisms

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    In Context

    • The government introduced The Forest (Conservation), Amendment Bill, 2023 in Lok Sabha to make changes to The Forest (Conservation) Act, 1980.
      • The proposed amendments to the Act are criticised for weakening the very purpose of the legislation.

    Background of the legislation

    • The Forest (Conservation) Act, 1980:
      • Following Independence, vast swathes of forest land were designated as reserved and protected forests and brought under state forest departments
      • However, many forested areas were left out — and areas without any standing forests were included in ‘forest’ lands. 
      • The anomalies were supposed to be sorted out through extensive ground surveys — but the process remained incomplete.
    • Apex Court’s suspension order, 1996:
      • In 1996, the Supreme Court suspended the felling of trees across the country, and ruled that the FC Act would apply to all land parcels that were either recorded as ‘forest’ or resembled the dictionary meaning of forest.
        • This sweeping order helped check rampant deforestation on land not recorded as ‘forest’. 
        • But the order also came in the way of excluding from recorded forests vast areas that were already in use for agriculture or as homesteads.

    The Forest (Conservation) Amendment Bill, 2023

    • Restrictions on activities in forest: 
      • The Act restricts the de-reservation of forest or use of forest land for non-forest purposes
      • Such restrictions may be lifted with the prior approval of the central government.  
        • Non-forest purposes include use of land for cultivating horticultural crops or for any purpose other than reafforestation.  
    • Assigning of land through a lease or otherwise: 
      • Under the Act, state government or any authority requires prior approval of the central government to direct the assigning of forest land through a lease or otherwise to any organisation (such as private person, agency, authority, corporation) not owned by the government.
    • Building forest carbon stock & improving livelihood:
      • The predominant idea of the proposed changes is to build forest carbon stock by raising plantations
        • The Bill talks about keeping up with “dynamic changes in the ecological, strategic and economic aspirations of the country” and “improvement of livelihoods for forest-dependent communities.” 
        • The scope of the amendments boils down to pushing plantations to achieve carbon neutrality by limiting the scope of the Act.
        • Indeed, compared to stable natural forests, fast-growing plantations score faster carbon growth. 
        • Conveniently, both count the same towards increasing the country’s green cover, since India does not discriminate between forests and plantations for the purpose.
    • Compensatory afforestation:
      • The Bill also seeks to make land available for developers to meet their legal obligation towards compensatory afforestation in lieu of forest land diverted for development projects.
        • How?
          • If the scope of the FC Act is restricted, fewer projects will be required to obtain forest clearance, which is considered a ‘hurdle’ by most developers in and outside the government. 
          • But it will also help developers secure forest clearance when they need it.
          • A key condition for forest clearance is that a developer must carry out compensatory afforestation on equivalent non-forest land or, if non-forest land is not available, on degraded forest land twice the extent of the forest area diverted. 

    Issues & criticisms

    • Removing the forest protection:
      • The amendment Bill, instead of completing the demarcation process on the ground, seeks to limit the applicability of the FC Act only to land recorded as ‘forest’. 
      • This will have the effect of removing the protection of the Act from millions of hectares of land that have the characteristics of forests, but are not notified as such.
        • How much area will be affected? 
          • For an idea of the scale, consider the latest State of Forests Report (SFR 2021), which records India’s forest cover as 713,789 sq km. 
          • Of this, nearly 28% or 197,159 sq km — roughly the size of Gujarat — is not recorded as ‘forest’.
    • Freeing up the land:
      • The Bill tries to achieve both the objectives (of build forest carbon stock & afforestation) by restricting the applicability of the FC Act, and by freeing up land that is currently locked up as unrecorded forests.
    • No specific conditions for denying:
      • There are no specific conditions laid by the environment ministry for outrightly denying permission for deforestation for development projects.
        • For example, indiscriminately planting mangroves on mudflats which don’t naturally have mangroves to act as a buffer from storms. 
        • Destroying grasslands and open natural ecosystems for solar parks.
    • Beyond compensation:
      • What this means is that in addition to livelihood impacts, biodiversity impacts, and hydrological impacts, the climate impacts of such development projects also cannot adequately be ‘compensated’ by compensatory afforestation.
    • Affecting indigenous communities:
      • Any review of the FC Act is an opportunity to make suitable concessions for land that has traditionally been under the control of indigenous and forest communities. 
        • Even after the enactment of the Forest Rights Act, 2006, the scope for their consent has eroded incrementally when it came to the diversion of forest land for development projects
      • Now, they may have no say on the extensive plantations that are envisaged on land on which they depend as communities.
    • Choosing plantation over forests:
      • Forests are a lot more than a sum of trees. Unlike man-made plantations, natural forests perform a range of ecosystem services that are key to the survival and well-being of the millions of species that they support and also provide direct livelihood and subsistence to crores of people.

    Way ahead

    • Research has found that natural ecosystems sequester more carbon.
      • We have known all along that creating single-species plantations in, say, Haryana does not really come close to a natural sal forest lost to a development project in, say, Central Indian forests in terms of biodiversity, local livelihoods, hydrological services, and sequestered carbon.
    • The recent Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report also stated that not degrading existing ecosystems in the first place will do more to lower the impact of the climate crisis than restoring ecosystems that have been destroyed.

     

    Daily Mains Question

    [Q] The forest conservation Bill’s focus on raising ‘tradeable vertical repositories of carbon’ can jeopardise the very purpose of the Act, which is to protect and conserve India’s forests. Analyse considering recently proposed amendments to the forest conservation Act.