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Bill to amend Forests Act skip key Parl body headed by Congress MP Jairam Ramesh

ByJayashree Nandi, New Delhi
Mar 30, 2023 05:04 PM IST

The bill seeks to clarify what constitutes a forest, and hence attract provisions of the Forest Conservation Act in case of diversion — with activists and environmentalists fearing that it will dilute the impact of a 1996 Supreme Court order defining forests.

The Lok Sabha on Wednesday decided to forward the controversial Forest Conservation Amendment Bill, 2023, which was introduced the same day, to a select committee of Parliament, instead of the parliamentary standing committee on science, technology, environment and forests headed by Congress MP Jairam Ramesh, prompting a protest from the lawmaker.

Senior Congress leader Jairam Ramesh. (PTI File)

The bill seeks to clarify what constitutes a forest, and hence attract provisions of the Forest Conservation Act in case of diversion — with activists and environmentalists fearing that it will dilute the impact of a 1996 Supreme Court order defining forests.

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It also exempts certain forest land from obtaining prior forest clearance permission — including those within 100km of international borders or Line of Control (LOC) proposed to be used for construction of strategic linear project of national importance and concerning national security; strip forests (up to 0.10 hectares) situated alongside a rail line or a public road maintained by the government; and tree plantations on private lands that are not categorised as forests .

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Ramesh tweeted: “There’s a most sinister move in LS today to refer the Bill to drastically amend Forest Conservation Act, 1980 to Select Committee. It should have gone to Standing Committee on Environment & Forests. Problem for PM is I chair it, while Select Comm will be chaired by his chosen MP.”

Ramesh also wrote to Jagdeep Dhankhar, chairman of the Rajya Sabha on behalf of the Congress party and the Opposition on Wednesday, stating that the bill falls in the domain of the standing committee on science, technology, environment and forests. “This is one of the eight committees of the Rajya Sabha and that is why I seek your urgent intervention to prevent its complete emasculation... there are also serious problems with the list of members proposed by the Government for the joint committee. No member of the opposition figures in the list which is hopelessly one sided,” the letter stated.

To be sure, the select committee has three members from opposition parties, TMC’s Jawhar Sircar, BJD’s Prashanta Nanda and Sikkim Democratic Front’s Hishey Lachungpa.

One of the objectives of the bill is to remove any ambiguity around the Supreme Court’s December 12, 1996 judgement in TN Godavarman Thirumulpad vs. Union of India and others case where ut directed that “forests” will not only include forest as understood in the dictionary sense, but also any area recorded as forest in Government records irrespective of the ownership.

In its statement of objects and reasons, the amendment bill says that subsequent to that judgement, the provisions of the Act were applied in the recorded forest areas, including those which had already been put to various type of non-forestry use, thereby restraining authorities from undertaking any change in the land use and allowing any development or utility related work. There were also apprehensions on applicability of the Act in plantations on private and Government non-forest lands.

It also argues that since the original act was enacted, new challenges relating to ecological, social and environmental developments, such as, mitigating the impact of climate change, achieving the national targets of Net Zero Emission by 2070 and maintaining or enhancing the forest carbon stock have emerged. Keeping in view the aims and objective of the country to increase the forest or tree cover for creation of carbon sink of additional 2.5 to 3.0 billion tons of CO2 equivalent by 2030, such amendments are necessary, it states.

Experts are not convinced.

“The Bill systematically dilutes the provisions of ‘Deemed Forest’ in Supreme Court judgment in TN Godavarman, where any land which is recorded as forest in govt record required ‘Forest Clearance’. Now the amendment proposes to include only those lands which are recorded as forests on/after 25 October 1980,” tweeted Debadityo Sinha, lead, climate and ecosystems at the Vidhi Centre for Legal Policy.

“This is major exemption and threaten a significant area of forest land in the country, especially because majority of such recorded forest lands were originally transferred to forest dept during abolishment of Zamindari system (in 50s-70s),” he added.

He pointed out that the list of exemptions, apart from the projects listed above, “now includes ‘silviculture’, establishment of zoo/safari, ecotourism facilities included in Management Plan; ‘any other like purposes’ ordered/ specified by the Centre.”

"There are two shifts and one gap related to the proposed amendments that are important to understand, especially as they seek to reorganise the four decades of Centre-state interactions through the forest conservation legislation. The first is around unlocking specific lands to accommodate plantations that are now central to achieving global climate targets and domestic compensatory afforestation in lieu of forest loss. Second, broad powers to exempt the requirement of prior conservation-oriented scrutiny for projects of strategic and national importance. What remains an obvious gap, even in the statement and objects of the amendment, is the reconciliation of the forest conservation legislation with the forest rights question, which should have been important especially when almost all proposed amendments will necessarily come to bear on prevailing, pending or recognised forest rights," said Kanchi Kohli, legal researcher, Centre for Policy Research.

Forest rights groups also opposed the bill. “All these proposed exemptions directly violate Forest Rights Act 2006. These are in continuation to the several other such exemptions that MoEFCC has granted for making forest diversions easy for government and private agencies…the amendment intends to limit the application of both forest conservation act and forest rights act by taking out large forest areas out of the purview of forest conservation act to ensure diversion of forests for use by public and private sector and advance the agenda for ‘ease of business’. It violates the forest rights act, Panchayat Act and constitutional provisions for the STs and other traditional forest dwellers and it also attempts to redefine forests to promote private plantations that can lead to massive deforestation and environmental degradation,” said Tushar Dash, independent expert on forest rights.’

HT reported on January 9 last year that the environment ministry had put out a consultation paper on amending the Forest Conservation Act of 1980 on October 2, 2021 for public comments. It received over 5,000 comments from individuals, state governments and experts, according to officials familiar with the matter.

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