Formulating a robust forest conservation law
On October 2, the Union government released a consultation paper on amending the Forest Conservation Act (FCA), 1980. According to the ministry of environment, forest and climate change (MOEFCC), the latest round of amendments is required because there have been changes in India’s ecological, social, and environmental regimes over the last 40 years. The amendments propose to bring significant changes to how forest land is managed in India, facilitating private plantations and the extraction of oil and natural gas from forests. Some experts say that these changes could accelerate trade in land. The document is open to public comment till October 17.
While the decision to invite public consultation is a positive move, there are strong criticisms of the proposals and the consultation process.
First, states, civil society, and local communities should have been allowed reasonable time to analyse this document since any change in forests laws will have a far-reaching impact on society and the environment; second, the consultation process could have been made more democratic by making translations of the paper available in official languages; third, there is no acknowledgement of the Forests Rights Act or the Biodiversity Act in the paper. This is surprising because both laws are integral to any debate on forests in India. Fourth, environmentalists allege that the document shows that the government plans to use a central statute to dilute many state laws that stall deforestation. Fifth, if destruction of forests is allowed in, say, border areas in the Himalayan region, in the name of security, it could impact water availability since most rivers originate there. And last but not least, the document does not consider that commercial tree plantations are much poorer at storing carbon than natural forests. The desire to push commercial forestry is further proof, activists claim, that the State is facilitating the takeover of forest land and making it cheaper for corporations to use it for commercial gains.
These are serious criticisms, and for formulating a robust forest law, the government must address them before moving further.