Why the State needs to imagine forests differently
In a year struck with natural disasters of flooding, cyclones and drought, the Government of India intends to revisit law and policy around a major natural entity —Indian forests. The ministry of environment, forests and climate change has publicly circulated a discussion note on the Forest (Conservation) Act or FCA of 1980. This is meant to be a precursor to actual amendments to the Act. As the name suggests, the purpose of the Act is to conserve forests.
Forests are often seen as analogous to “nature” in India, perhaps because of the existence of FCA for decades. Yet, forests are also narrativised as standing in the way of several goals that the government sets — mines, roads, railways lines, oil and gas extraction.
And forests get cleared often, regardless of their status as per FCA. National parks such as Dibru Saikhowa in Assam have received “clearances” to prospect for oil; the proposed Ken-Betwa river interlink will drown 100 sq km of the Panna tiger reserve, and many sanctuaries face denotification as infrastructure projects are proposed.
The spirit of the discussion paper is intriguing. Instead of making cogent arguments on saving forests, it suggests that forests need to make way to accommodate the pressures on land — and that these adjustments are a price that we must pay to avoid inconvenience to agencies.
There are at least three issues that need greater consideration.
One, the discussion paper moots a “right of way” for agencies such as the public works department, the National Highways Authority of India, Indian Railways and others, saying land acquired before 1980 should be exempt from the provisions of the Act.
Today, railway lines and highways are a huge threat to wildlife and forest habitat. Trains collide with elephant families, leopards, tigers, and just about any wild animal in the area. By the ministry’s own admission, trains have killed 60 elephants between 2016 and 2019. These are the figures we know, but the number is likely to be higher.
Further, railways are not under the Environment Impact Assessment (EIA) regime, and highways are often presented as broken up or disconnected projects to escape EIAs.
To do away with forest conservation provisions for railways may be a small concession on paper, but will have huge ramifications on the ground. To take just one example: The railway line in and near Deepor Beel, a sanctuary in Guwahati, is proposed to be doubled. This would stand in the way of elephants who regularly visit the area – elephants are also the largest animals most often killed by trains in India. Doubling railway lines and increasing laning of highways will compromise the right of way for wildlife in forest areas — cumulatively, areas that do not require EIAs and forest clearances would run into hundreds of kilometres.
The second issue relates to what we think forests should be saved for. The discussion paper suggests removing any permission for surveys and investigation activities. While it is not made explicit, this refers to prospecting for mining and oil and gas extraction. In the same vein, the paper says that extended reach drilling for oil is environmentally benign and should be removed from the purview of FCA.
The question to ask here is why forests get prospected through surveys. Logically, this is not to enable afforestation but to enable extraction of oil and gas. As mentioned earlier, rights for prospecting in Dibru-Saikhowa, a national park with the highest protection under law, have been granted. Interestingly, a nearby area, Baghjan, had a massive oil blowout and fire — one that could not be put out for over six months and gutted the endemic bird-rich Maguri wetland. In the context of this disaster, it would be incumbent on FCA to suggest caution. Yet the government is looking the other way. In September, the National Board for Wildlife said that oil and gas prospecting is “not mining”, clearing six proposals for forest diversion in Tripura’s Trishna sanctuary.
The final issue is that of not seeing forests for what they are — sites that have taken time to grow, thrive and forge interconnected ecosystems. Forests are places which are specific because they are deeply rooted. A non-forest activity that can be done anywhere should ideally be moved to outside forests. Yet, other than seeing forests as something of an inconvenience, there is also a danger of seeing them as sites where various random activities can take place.
The paper suggests for example, that zoos should be allowed in forest land. Zoos are usually buildings with display areas. Instead of taking this as an opportunity to create more sites with green belts, forests are being viewed as places to keep animals caged.
There is a sliver of progress in the way the paper seeks to define forests using the Supreme Court’s Godavarman case, one which stressed that forests should be defined by the dictionary meaning of the term, and an area can be a forest despite land ownership. It also says some “pristine” forests should be protected for some [undisclosed amount of] time.
Yet, the thrust of the proposed changes is on forest diversion, failing to look at forests as places with the Right of Way and actually worth conserving. The government must rethink its changes to the Act.
Neha Sinha is a conservation biologist and author of Wild and Wilful — Tales of 15 iconic Indian species
The views expressed are personal