Weddings in forests may not require Centre’s permit anymore
In a letter dated October 11 addressed to forest secretaries of states and union territories, a copy of which was seen by HT, the environment ministry said all such temporary activities can be conducted with approval of the divisional forest officer (DFO) of the range.Updated: Oct 16, 2019 05:38 IST
Weddings, exhibitions, concerts, film shoots and other events of a temporary nature may now be allowed inside forests without the requirement of prior permission from the Centre under the Forest Conservation Act, a decision that has opened a debate on their likely impact on the wilderness.
In a letter dated October 11 addressed to forest secretaries of states and union territories, a copy of which was seen by HT, the environment ministry said all such temporary activities can be conducted with approval of the divisional forest officer (DFO) of the range.
The letter said the ministry had been receiving communications on whether the Forest Conservation Act applied to temporary activities inside forests.
“The matter has been examined in detail in the ministry and it has been decided that temporary work in forest land which does not involve part of any protected area, breaking up or clearing of forest land or portion thereof, assigning by way of lease or otherwise to firm, organization or a person and does not create any right over such forest land…will not require prior approval of central government under the FC Act,” the letter added.
Only 23% of India’s over 700,000 sq km of forest cover falls in the protected category.
“The letter does not clarify what is temporary use or its duration. Would a film shoot, cultural or religious event be part of it? It is very likely that there would be rights of forest dwellers that persist on such land. It needs to be examined whether entering and using these areas only with permission of the forest department can amount to trespassing on other existing or pending rights. Also, if no approval is needed from the Centre, there will also not be any oversight mechanism,” said Kanchi Kohli, legal researcher at the Centre for Policy Research.
Environment ministry officials said that such temporary activities were allowed in forest areas through a guideline issued in 2014. The guideline has only been reissued now.
“We have reissued the guideline because it was not published in the handbook of guidelines we had released. There were queries on whether such activities can take place so we have clarified. There are many areas recorded as forests but there is no tree growth. For example, people can hold an exhibition there without tampering with the characteristics of the land. Such temporary use is allowed only for 10 to 15 days,” said Siddhanta Das, director general of forests.
Experts raised concerns about the impact of such activities on biodiversity and forest dwellers. “I think any kind of anthropocentric activity even if it is temporary is going to be detrimental for the diminishing wilderness. The Art of Living event on the Yamuna floodplains in 2016 was temporary but had huge repercussions on biodiversity. We should be very careful such a notification is not allowed. A Lot of wildlife including tigers exist in forests outside protected areas and any kind of meddling will be a death knell for biodiversity,” said Vijay Dhasmana, a naturalist.
“The legality of the order is questionable. It’s a very vague letter which doesn’t define what kind of temporary activities will be allowed. It is violating both the forest conservation act and the forest right act because it doesn’t recognize the rights of forest dwellers on forest land,” said Tushar Dash of the Community Forest Rights Learning and Advocacy group.
Experts said permitting temporary activities should be read together with the relaxation on permissions for linear projects in forest areas in 2017. The ministry, in a letter to all states and UTs, had said that “in-principle” approval under the Forest Conservation Act should be deemed as working permission for tree cutting and commencement of work for linear projects. Impact on breeding or migration cycles of wildlife were raised even in 2017 following the order on linear projects.
The Forest Conservation Act defines “non-forest” activities as any purpose other than reafforestation, but does not include any work relating to or ancillary to conservation, development and management of forests and wildlife, namely, the establishment of check-posts, fire lines (an area cleared of all flammable material), wireless communication and so on.