Key changes proposed in Forest Conservation Act 1980
The Union environment ministry has come out with a consultation paper on amending the Forest Conservation Act 1980 to bring significant changes to forest governance in India including facilitating private plantations for harvesting and exploration or extraction of oil and natural gas deep beneath forest land by drilling holes from outside the forest areas.
Here are the highlights of the environment ministry’s proposal:
Forests on private land
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 versus Union of India and Others case, all areas that conformed to the ‘dictionary’ meaning of ‘forest’ were ordered to be also considered as forests.
“Identification of such land is subjective and arbitrary to some extent. This leads to ambiguity and has been observed to have resulted into a lot of resentment and resistance particularly from private individuals and organisations. Considering any private area as forest, would restrict the right of an individual to use his/her own land for any non-forestry activity,” the ministry has said in its consultation paper.
Even when diversion of such areas is allowed, the owner has to provide equivalent area of non-forest land and other compensatory levies to use his own land for intended non-forestry purpose. “This has further led to the tendency to keep most of the private lands devoid of vegetation even if there’s scope for planting activities. In view of this, it is felt extremely necessary to define the scope of application of the act in an objective manner,” it added.
Achieving India’s climate target
One of India’s nationally determined contributions (NDC) under the Paris Agreement is to create a carbon sink expansion of additional (cumulative) 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 thousand crore. We had a thriving market for timber and wood products which disappeared. It has to be revived now,” a senior environment ministry official said.
The paper says that to achieve the NDC extensive plantations in all possible available lands outside the government forests was 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 Act,” the paper states.
Keeping some forests intact
The environment ministry is considering introducing a provision in the forest conservation act to keep certain pristine forests “showcasing rich ecological values” intact for a specific period.
Go ahead to strategic projects
The paper asks whether use of forest land for strategic and security projects of national importance should be exempted from the need to obtain prior approval from the Central government. Doling 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.
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,” it adds.
Building in forests
To ease the grievances of the individuals whose land fall in state specific private forests act or within the purview of dictionary meaning of forest, the ministry has proposed to allow them the right to construct structures for bonafide purposes including forest protection measures and residential units up to an area of 250 sq mtr as one time relaxation.
According to the ministry, the amendment has been proposed to recognise the 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.
"With these amendments the environment ministry looks to unlock land for infrastructure development and plantations, both of which are high on economic priorities. The 1996 Supreme Court order had banned the use of domestic timber for wood-based industries, including saw mills. This 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 incentivize 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," said Kanchi Kohli, legal researcher at Centre for Policy Research.
"On the infrastructure side, the environment ministry has prioritized the requirements of government agencies like NHAI and railways. It assumes that land once acquired by these agencies should be allowed for unencumbered use. However, this does not explicitly take into account that these acquisitions themselves may be based on unresolved land rights or may have created new livelihood base for people brought in to raise, maintain and sell the plantations on government land." she added.