Facilitating oil, gas exploration, pvt plantations in govt plans
The Centre has released a consultation paper on amending the Forest Conservation Act, 1980, to bring significant changes to how forest land is managed in India, a move that will facilitate private plantations and the extraction of oil and natural gas from deep beneath forest land by drilling holes from outside the forest areas, although some experts are worried that the changes could actually accelerate trade in what is unquestionably India’s most precious commodity -- land.
According to the ministry of environment, forest and climate change, the amendment recognises considerable changes in the ecological, social, and environmental regimes in the country in the last 40 years. State governments have been asked to send their comments within 15 days.
Clarity on use of private forests
Until December 1996, provisions of the Forest Conservation Act only applied to the forests notified under the Indian Forest Act, 1927, or any other local law, and to those managed by the forest department. But after the Supreme Court judgement dated December 12, 1996, in TN Godavarman Thirumulpad vs Union of India and Others case, all areas that conformed to the dictionary meaning of forest were ordered to be considered as forests too.
“Identification of such land is subjective and arbitrary to some extent. This leads to ambiguity and has been observed to have resulted in a lot of resentment and resistance, particularly from private individuals and organisations. Considering any private area forest would restrict the right of an individuals to use their own land for any non-forestry activity,” the ministry has said in its consultation paper, which is available on its website.
Even when diversion of such areas is allowed, the owner must provide an equivalent area of non-forest land and other compensatory levies . This ambiguity has led to the tendency to keep most of the private lands devoid of vegetation, the paper said, adding that it is extremely necessary to define the scope of application of the Forest Conservation Act objectively.
Fulfilling India’s climate commitment
One of India’s nationally determined contributions (NDC) under the Paris Agreement is to create a carbon sink of 2.5–3 billion tonnes through additional forest and tree cover by 2030. “We also want to reduce the flow from foreign exchange for import of wood and wood derivatives to the tune of approximately ₹45,000 crore. We had a thriving market for timber and wood products which has disappeared. It has to be revived now so that local people can benefit from their own plantations,” a senior environment ministry official said on condition of anonymity.
The paper said that to achieve the NDC, extensive plantations in all possible available land outside government forests are necessary. “But to ensure this, there is a need to dispel the apprehension among tree growers that vegetation or tree plantation raised on their private/ non-forest lands will attract the provisions of the FC Act,” the paper states.
Keeping some forests intact
The environment ministry is considering introducing a provision in the Act to keep certain pristine forests “showcasing rich ecological values” intact for a specific period.
Go ahead for projects
The paper asks whether the use of forest land for strategic and security projects of national importance should be exempt from the need to obtain prior approval from the central government. Doing this will allow states to permit diversion of forest land for strategic and security projects that are to be completed in a given time frame, but also lends itself to misuse.
Oil and natural gas extraction
The paper proposes to facilitate new technologies such as extended reach drilling (ERD) for extraction of oil and natural gas found deep beneath the forest land by drilling holes from outside the forest areas. The paper suggests that this will not impact the soil or aquifer that supports the forest. “Ministry considers use of such technology is quite environment-friendly and as such should be kept outside the purview of FC Act,”the paper says.
Building in private forests
To ease the grievances of people whose lands fall in private forests or within the purview of the dictionary meaning of forest, the ministry has proposed allowing them the right to construct structures for bona fide purposes, including forest protection measures and residential units up to an area of 250 sq mtr (2,690 sq feet) as one-time relaxation.
“With these amendments, the environment ministry looks to unlock land for infrastructure development and plantations, both of which are high on economic priorities,” said Kanchi Kohli, legal researcher at Centre for Policy Research.
She said that the 1996 Supreme Court order banned the use of domestic timber for wood-based industries, including sawmills, which hugely increased raw material imports as a trade-off to conserve plantations and important forest areas. “So, the underlying presumption is that private land, once released from the requirement of prior forest clearances, will incentivise plantation-based carbon sinks. In reality, these lands will become market commodities and tradable assets both for private parties to sell, and government to acquire on behalf of private parties,” Kohli said.
The researcher added that on the infrastructure side, the environment ministry has prioritised the requirement of government agencies such as the National Highways Authority of India and the railways. “It assumes that land once acquired by these agencies should be allowed for unencumbered use. However, this does not explicitly consider that these acquisitions themselves may be based on unresolved land rights or may have created new livelihood bases for people brought in to raise, maintain and sell the plantations on government land.”