New Delhi: The Ministry of Forest, Environment, and Climate Change (MoEFCC) has published a draft amendment to the Forest Conservation Act 1980 last week. The purpose of this amendment is to ease the diversion of forests and to exempt certain categories of development works from the requirement of obtaining approval from the ministry. The ministry has sought feedback from the state governments and the general public on this draft within 15 days. After reviewing the feedback, the government will prepare a draft of the amendment, on which the public’s opinion will once again be taken and the draft will be presented again in the form of a bill in Parliament.
According to the Indian Express report, the Forest Conservation Act has been amended only once so far. Ministry officials say that according to the existing law, due to the definition of forest, the land has been locked in the whole country. Even people with private ownership are not able to use their property. According to the existing law, any diversion, even on a lease, of wildland for any purpose requires the approval of the central government.
Why is the law being amended?
Earlier in 1996, the Supreme Court, in its judgment in TN Godavarman Thirumulpad v. Government of India, had expanded the definition and scope of forest land so that all areas recorded as forest in any government record irrespective of ownership, recognition, and classification. to be included. Earlier these laws were applied largely to reserve forests and national parks, but the Court also expanded the definition of forests to include the lexical meaning of ‘forest’, which automatically means a forested area. will become a ‘deemed forest’, even if it is not notified as a protected place, whether the ownership is private or public. The order was also interpreted to assume that the Act is applicable to plantations in non-forest land.
Ministry officials said the proposed amendments are to streamline the rules of the existing law. It is also said that the identification of forest land is subjective and arbitrary and due to the ambiguity there is resentment and opposition among people and organizations about it. The ministry also said that the Ministry of Railways, Road, Traffic, and Highways has also lodged strong objections. Officials say it takes years for different ministries to get approval for development plans. And as a result infrastructure projects get delayed.
What are the proposed amendments?
- The Ministry has proposed that all land acquired by the Ministry of Railways and Roads before 1980 will be exempted from the Act. It has been said that these lands were acquired for the expansion of services, but over time, forests grew in these areas and then the government could not use these lands. If amendments are brought, then different ministries will not need approval for the projects.
- Whereas for persons whose land is covered under the state-specific Private Forest Act or within the literal meaning of forest as specified in the Supreme Court order of 1996, they shall be entitled to ‘construction of structures for bonafide purposes’ including residential units. is proposed to be allowed. Under this, up to 250 square meters can be constructed as a one-time exemption.
- At the same time, defense plans close to the international border will also not need approval for construction.
- Oil and gas excavation on forest land will also be approved, but for this only Extended Reach Drilling technology will be used.
- The Ministry has proposed to do away with the levy for non-forestry purposes during the renewal of lease. The ministry has said that levying double levy at the time of leasing and renewal is not rational.
- Exemption will also be given from stripped plantation along the roads covered under the Act.
What are the concerns?
- Activists and opposition leaders say that relaxation in rules will increase corporate ownership of forest land and increase deforestation, which will also reduce their scope.
- Former forest officials say that deforestation on private land will reduce forests rapidly. He said that 4 percent of the land in Uttarakhand comes under private forest.
- CPM leader Brinda Karat said that what will happen to the people of tribal and forest dwellers? The proposed amendment does not address their concerns.
- Activists working for the environment say that by allowing the Ministry of Railways and Roads to build on the land before 1980, there will be a lot of harm to the environment as well as to wild animals. Especially it will be harmful for elephants, tigers and leopards.
- Environmentalists say the one-time exemption for private residences on private forests will lead to fragmentation of forests, and real estate capture in open areas such as the Aravalli hills.
Did environmentalists find anything positive as well?
Environmentalists have welcomed the fact that the government has made the consultation paper public, and has decided to make changes through amendments using parliamentary procedure. Environmental lawyer Ritwik Dutta said that in the last decade and a half, regardless of which party is in power, the standard procedure has been to change laws through office memorandums and letters and not through the statutory process.