New forest bill must strike a fine balance
The bill aligns with the government's focus on creating carbon sinks, but must also balance development and ecological preservation.
Among the most important bills likely to be tabled in Parliament in the upcoming monsoon session is the Forest (Conservation) Amendment Bill, 2023. And if the developments in the joint parliamentary committee (JPC) scrutinising the draft legislation are any clue, then it is likely to be contentious as well. This newspaper reported that the panel is likely to finalise its report on Tuesday even as four Opposition members submitted dissent notes. At the core of the controversy is the notion of what constitutes a forest, as laid out in the bill. According to a report by the Vidhi Centre for Legal Policy, the proposed law covers only land declared or notified as a forest under the Indian Forest Act, 1927, or under any other law. It also seeks to recognise only forest land recorded as forests on or after October 25, 1980. This, activists argue, stands in contrast to the usually liberal definition of forests India has traditionally favoured, in order to ensure more areas are protected from encroachment and diversion. These modifications to the Forest Conservation Act, 1980, could jeopardise vast tracts of ecologically important forests and leave out several so-called deemed forests that constitute some 15% of India’s total green cover, they fear. Some Opposition parliamentarians echoed similar concerns, singling out a proposed clause that appears to exempt strategic developmental projects of national importance on forest land situated within 100 km of an international border.
The earlier, more liberal, interpretation of forests helped protect ecosystems that were managed as forests but may not have been recognised as such. If the newer interpretation is adopted, it may roll back some of those protections, rendering these tracts vulnerable, and also threatening the livelihood of forest-based communities. The proposed bill is in line with the Union government’s recent push to offset the impact of development in one part of the country by creating carbon sinks in another. But the bill, if passed, must also attempt to balance the need to fulfil people’s aspirations for development with protecting India’s ecological heritage and fragile biodiversity.