Green law to push infra will hit environment hard, fear experts

Updated on Jun 05, 2021 04:44 AM IST

The amendment in the FC Act, for instance, will mainly focus on finalising the definition of forests.

The amendment in the Forest Conservation Act will mainly focus on finalising the definition of forests. (ANI)
The amendment in the Forest Conservation Act will mainly focus on finalising the definition of forests. (ANI)
ByJayashree Nandi, Hindustan Times, New Delhi

The environment ministry is working on a radical change to the country’s environmental law regime, including changes in the important Wildlife Protection Act 1972, senior environment ministry officials said. The move comes amidst concerns among activists and environment groups that the changes are being made to make it easier to develop infrastructure and industrial projects -- even in environmentally sensitive areas.

The ministry’s wildlife division has prepared a Cabinet note to amend the Wildlife Protection Act, 1972, which is yet to be cleared by the Cabinet; a similar note on the amendment to Forest (Conservation) Act, 1980 has also been finalised after circulating it internally among ministries. The FC Act amendment has been finalised with inputs from ministries. The first draft was cleared and is ready to be sent for Cabinet nod, ministry officials said.

On April 8, the ministry called for expression of interest from consulting and law firms to prepare a new draft amendment to the Indian Forest Act, 1927. Meanwhile, a private law firm is preparing a draft environmental management act which will subsume the Air Act 1981, Water Act, 1974, and the Environment (Protection) Act, 1986, and serve as an overarching law for all infrastructure and industry projects. This will also cover regulations of the coastal areas and islands through the Coastal Regulation Zone provisions.

RP Gupta, secretary at the ministry did not reply to HT’s questionnaire or calls seeking comment. A senior environment ministry official said on condition of anonymity that the idea is to “streamline processes and to remove any ambiguity in provisions. This will make the job easy for everyone.”

The amendment in the FC Act, for instance, will mainly focus on finalising the definition of forests. The SC in 1996 in the T N Godavarman Thirumalpad Vs Union of India & Ors case held that the word ‘forest’ must be understood according to its dictionary meaning. It also said that irrespective of whether an area is a forest as per revenue records, it will be covered by the FC Act, and cannot be used for any non-forestry activity without the Centre’s permission if it meets the dictionary meaning.

“To avoid any further confusion, we will ensure that states which haven’t yet recognised forests as per dictionary meaning do so immediately and those that have can finalise the area accordingly. It will also clarify that plantation on non-forest land will not be recognised as forest in future. They are a totally different category and can be harvested by people who have planted them. This will also facilitate plantations,” the official cited above added.

It isn’t known what changes have been suggested in the wildlife law. “A Cabinet note will be submitted soon where the ministry’s objectives have been summarised,” a second official said on condition of anonymity.

“ A cautious, democratic and ambitious environmental agenda is the way forward to uphold social justice as reduce risk to business. Instead, the government has floated at least one legal change every month that is regressive, will increase resource conflicts and will not help defend ecological vulnerabilities. Most of these legal amendments have been designed in close door expert meetings, or instructed through office orders. They look to extract rather than protect the environment,” said Kanchi Kohli, legal researcher, Centre for Policy Research.

Earlier this year, when the second wave of Covid-19 was ravaging the country, the environment ministry issued some contentious circulars. In a letter dated March 22 to additional chief secretary (forest)/ principal secretary (forest) of all state governments and Union territories, the ministry stated that a state government/UT administration will not impose any additional condition on infrastructure projects after in-principle approval has been accorded by the Centre. Independent experts say the move will further centralise powers to monitor infrastructure projects and constrain state government’s decision-making in issues related to forest and wildlife conservation.

Last month, the ministry made provisions to expedite forest clearances for “critical infrastructure projects” in Left-wing extremism (LWE)-hit districts and those related to defence and security in border areas by delegating them to the regional offices of the ministry and making clearances time bound. Decisions on major projects such as granting terms of reference (TOR) for a township and area development project proposal on the Great Nicobar Island which is likely to impact turtle and megapode nesting sites.

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