Dr C.P. Rajendran
The writer is an adjunct professor at National Institute of Advanced Studies, Bengaluru, and a director of the Consortium for Sustainable Development, Connecticut, U.S.
Forest (Conservation) Amendment Bill, 2023 introduced in the Lok Sabha on March 29 has been referred to a Joint Parliamentary Committee amid protests from the opposition benches. Congress leader Jairam Ramesh, chairman of the Rajya Sabha’s standing committee on Science, Technology, Environment, Forest and Climate Change, has criticised the Centre for taking the path of least resistance by referring the bill to a JPC, bypassing the Standing Committee—a more representative forum comprising members from treasury and opposition benches. Probably wanting a smooth running for the bill, the government did not want to risk critical handling of the issue.
Defining ‘forest’ is the solution to many conservation-related problems. This was not attempted even in the Forest Conservation Act (FCA), which came into force on October 25, 1980. The resolution to this question came much later. The saga began in 1995 when T N Godavarman Thirumulpad lodged a writ petition to conserve the Nilgiris forest land from unlawful timber operations. The Court, however, decided to investigate all aspects of the National Forest Policy. Marked as a momentous involvement of the judiciary on an issue of immense environmental concern, the Supreme Court passed an interim order on December 12, 1996, which clarified certain clauses of the FCA and emphasised the wider scope of its implementation.
It prohibited the authorities, including the state governments (except with the prior approval of the Centre), from changing the status of forests designated as ‘reserved’ or any portion thereof to be used for a non-forest purpose or from leasing out to any private or government agencies.
The Court held that the word “forest” must be understood according to the dictionary meaning, and the term “forest land” will also include any area recorded as forest in the government records. This case, popularly known as the Godavarman case, also triggered the Supreme Court’s continued engagement with forest conservation issues like the Centre for Environmental Law WWF-India v. Union of India case, restraining all state governments from deserving national parks, sanctuaries and forests.
The Supreme Court’s interventions resulted in the banning of mining in Kudremukh and the Aravallis, and the establishment of the compensatory afforestation fund.
With the Act’s enforcement, all non-forest activities throughout the country, without the specific approval of the Centre, came to a halt, including in mining and sawmills, etc. Unless approved by the Centre, the felling of all trees in all forests also remained suspended. Movement of cut trees and timber from any north-eastern state, either by rail, road or waterways, was also banned. Railways and Defence establishments were asked to find alternatives to wood-based products. It is reported that after enforcing FCA clauses from 1980 onwards, the misuse of forest land for non-forestry purposes reduced to about 40,000 hectares of forest land from a whopping loss of 4.3 million hectares from 1951 to 1980.
The land that has been notified as a forest, under the provisions of the Indian Forest Act, 1927, or under any other law for the time being in force, comes under the purview of the Act. These lands are usually reserved forests or protected forests. Now, the exemption is also applicable to forest land where up to 10 hectares, or five hectares in left-wing extremism areas, can be used for building security-related infrastructure, defence projects, paramilitary camps or public utility projects. Once these proposed amendments are enforced, the forest land alongside a rail track or public road (up to 0.10 hectares), tree plantation, or 100 km along the international border and line of control will be exempted.
To cite a likely scenario, once the amendment comes into effect, the forest in Meghalaya, situated within 100 km along the international border, for all practical purposes, risks survival. The proposed amendment to the existing FCA may impact many portions of the forests in the northeast region not far from the international borders. The bill also says that those areas, as per the government record declared as a forest on or after October 25, 1980, will be exempted from the purview of the Act. This makes the SC’s 1996 verdict ensuring legal protection for every forest type, as mentioned in government records, ineffective.
For an amendment bill that seeks to dilute the original provisions of the FCA, it curiously starts with an introductory statement of enhancing the forest cover—this sounds somewhat oxymoronic. It begins with the importance of creating a “carbon sink of additional 2.5 to 3.0 billion tons of CO2 equivalent … by 2030” and the national commitment to enhancing the forest cover. The preamble is also peppered with the usual invocations to the country’s greatness—the “tradition” of “preserving forests and biodiversity, forest-based economic, social and environmental benefits, including improvement of livelihoods for forest-dependent communities”.
And then, without further ado, the proposed bill goes for the jugular, in a very subtle way, to defeat the very purpose of the provisions of the original FCA that provided legislative support for the preservation of forest land and its resources.
In 2017, the UN General Assembly endorsed the UN Strategic Plan for Forests 2030. At the plan’s core is the goal of reversing the forest cover loss through sustainable forest management, including protection, restoration, afforestation and reforestation. The new amendment Bill, if implemented, will go against this goal. India is also a party to the pledge at the Climate Summit to end deforestation by 2030. Trees and forests offer the most widely accepted and proven method to remove CO2 from the atmosphere. This strong motivation drives the global community to expand the protected areas for forests to thrive. Let us not forget that “a tree is a wondrous thing that shelters, feeds and protects all living things. It even offers shade to the axmen who destroy it”—an axiom generally attributed to the Buddha.