The Union Ministry of Environment, Forests and Climate Change has proposed a number of changes to the Forest (Conservation) Act, 1980 (FCA), which could make it easier for infrastructure projects to be built in forest areas.
What changes have been made?
- Railways, roads, tree plantations, oil exploration, wildlife tourism, and ‘strategic’ forest projects would all be exempted.
- The proposal also aims to give state governments the authority to lease forest land to private individuals and businesses.
- If the proposed amendments become law, they will weaken the provisions of the Supreme Court’s landmark Godavarman decision from 1996.
According to the documents accessed, the amendments propose two changes to strengthen the FCA’s applicability:
- To complete the forest identification process in a timely manner.
- To enable the creation of ‘no-go’ zones where certain projects are not permitted.
The Amendment’s Most Important Propositions
The proposed amendments aim to improve and expand Sections 1 and 2.
(1) Survey and exploration concessions
- A provision has been added to the proposed new section 1A to exempt forest land that is “used for underground exploration and production of oil and natural gas through Extended Reach Drilling (ERD) originating outside forest land” from the application of FCA.
- The exemption is subject to the central government’s terms and conditions.
- Survey, reconnaissance, prospecting, exploration, or investigation for future forest activity will not be classified as a “non-forestry activity,” according to a new explanation added to Section 2.
- This means that such surveys would not need to be approved by the government in advance.
- Only if the activity takes place in a wildlife sanctuary, national park, or tiger reserve is there an exception.
(2) Railways and roads within forests are exempt.
- Land acquired by the railways for the construction of a rail line or a road by a government agency before October 25, 1980 (the day the FCA was passed) would be exempt from requiring a forest clearance if the land was put to the same use.
- A provision in the proposed section 1A includes this.
- The exemption is subject to terms and conditions set forth by the central government in guidelines, including the planting of trees to compensate for forest loss.
(3) Forest land leases
- Before assigning forest lands on lease to any private person, corporation, or organization that is not owned or controlled by the central government, Section 2(iii) of the FCA requires approval from the central government.
- However, the proposed amendment appears to have removed this clause.
- This could mean that state governments can issue leases for the use of forest land without seeking prior approval from the federal government.
(4) Plantation exemptions
- Plantation of native palm and oil-bearing trees would be exempted from the definition of “non-forest purpose,” according to a new explanation to Section 2.
- Because the FCA applies to the conversion of forest land to “non-forest purpose,” this proposed amendment effectively means that anyone who wants to clear a natural forest to grow such plantations would not need government approval.
- Only compensatory afforestation and payment of other levies and compensations will be imposed by the government.
(5) Wildlife tourism exemptions and training infrastructure
- Building checkpoints, communication infrastructure, fencing, boundaries, and other activities related to wildlife conservation are classified as “non-forestry” purposes by the FCA, which means they do not require a forest clearance.
- The proposed amendment claims to include “forest and wildlife training infrastructure” as well as the “establishment of zoos and safaris” that are managed by the government or any authority under the Wildlife Protection Act of 1972.
- It may also include ecotourism facilities that have been approved by the central government’s Forest Working Plan or Working Scheme.
(6) Forest clearance may be granted by states for strategic or security projects.
- According to the documents reviewed, the proposed Section 2A could allow the federal government to require state government approval for projects on forest land that are “strategic” or “security” projects of “national importance.”
- The scope of these terms, as well as the determination of national importance and illustrative examples of such projects, are unclear.
- Limiting the extent to which the Supreme Court’s decision is covered
- In the Godavarman Case of 1996, the Supreme Court ruled that the FCA’s definition of “forest” included more than just legally recognized forests.
- It would cover any land that is listed as forest in government records, regardless of who owns it.
- As a result, the FCA’s restrictions would apply to both de jure and de facto situations.
- The proposed amendment is ostensibly intended to limit the scope of this judgment by limiting the FCA’s application to only land that has been:
- The Indian Forest Act of 1927 declared or notified the area as forest.
- Prior to October 25, 1980, the land was recorded as forest land in the government records, with the exception of land that had its use changed from forest to non-forest purpose prior to December 12, 1996.
- Up to one year after the amendment, a state government expert committee identifies the land as “forest.”
- The Act was interpreted as it was at the time of the decision. As a result, the addition of a specific definition narrows the scope of the decision. As a result, de facto forests are exempt from the FCA’s jurisdiction.
Areas designated as “no-go”
- The proposed amendment adds a new Section 2B that allows the federal government to designate forest areas where conversion to non-forest uses is prohibited for a set period of time.
- The demarcation would be based on pre-determined criteria.
- This could mean, for example, that a dense forest would be prohibited from being converted to a coal mine for the next 30 years, but could be cleared for a thermal power plant.
- The Supreme Court had ordered states to form expert committees to compile a list of forests that were not notified under the Indian Forest Act, 1927 (IFA), but deserved to be protected under the FCA, in the Godavarman case.
- This requirement has yet to be met by a number of states.
Impact of Conservation Act
- The proposed Section 1A(ii) exempts forests that were identified as such in government records from the FCA’s reach (but not notified under the IFA).
- The Karnataka High Court recently heard a case in which the state government issued several orders to de-notify and divert lands classified as “state forest” (but not notified under the IFA) for non-forest purposes.
- The lands were then given to displaced people for rehabilitation. Dereservation of reserved forests was completed by the state government in 2017.
- The state government’s actions were overturned by the high court on March 4, 2021, for failing to obtain “prior approval of the central government,” as required by Section 2 of the FCA.
- It recommended that any officers who allowed non-forest use of forest land face criminal charges.
What awaits us?
- The insertion of Section 1A(ii) would exempt the application of the FCA to land that was converted to non-forest use by the Karnataka government if the proposed amendment is enacted.
- The government’s decision to exempt zoos and safaris from the definition of “non-forest purpose” comes a year after biologists objected to the government’s plans to open a zoo in Mumbai’s Aarey forest and a tiger safari in Madhya Pradesh.
- While state governments may seek dilution of the FCA during enforcement, the removal of the requirement for central government approval is a step toward dilution of forest land use restrictions.
#Static portion #
The Forest Conservation Act of 1980
- The Forest (Conservation) Act was enacted by the Centre Government in 1980, in response to India’s rapid deforestation and resulting environmental degradation.
- It was enacted to bring together the laws relating to forests, forest transit, and the duty levied on timber and other forest products.
- The Forest Act is administered by forest officers and their staff.
- The Forest Conservation Act of 1980 stipulated that in order to practice sustainable agro-forestry in forest areas, central permission is required. Violations or the lack of a permit were considered criminal offenses.
- The Centre receives advice on these approvals from an Advisory Committee established under the Act.
- The Reserved Forests, Village Forests, Protected Forests, and Private Forests Act deals with the four types of forests: reserved forests, village forests, protected forests, and private forests.
- Its goals included limiting deforestation, conserving biodiversity, and preserving wildlife. Despite the fact that this Act provides more hope for forest conservation, it fell short of its goal.
- Section 2 of the act lays out four criteria under which the Central Government must grant permission for any state action involving –
- Declaring that any forest that has been designated as a protected area is no longer protected.
- Forestland is being used for non-forest purposes.
- Forests are available for lease to any private individual.
- Declaring that any forest land may be cleared of trees that have naturally grown on the land for the purpose of reforestation.
- Non-forest purposes include removing self-regenerating forest to make way for plantations.
- A provision for compensatory afforestation is also included. Forestland must be paid for as if it were revenue land by the user agency. The NPV (Net Present Value) must be paid over a period of 50 years. The net present value (NPV) of forests is a measure of their ecological cost.
- Forest that has been set aside.
- A state may declare forestlands or waste lands as reserved forests and may sell the produce from these forests.
Any unauthorized felling of trees quarrying, grazing, and hunting in reserved forests is punishable with a fine or imprisonment, or both
Village forests/Forest Conservation Act 1980/
Reserved forests assigned to a village community are called village forests.
The state governments are empowered to designate protected forests and may prohibit the felling of trees, quarrying, and the removal of forest produce from these forests.
The preservation of protected forests is enforced through rules, licenses, and criminal prosecutions.
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