Why Naga People’s Front has opposed the Forest Conservation (Amendment) Act 2023
The Forest (Conservation) Amendment Act received the President's assent on August 4, and it will come into effect once the Centre notifies it in the gazette
India’s new law to regulate forest conservation is “anti-tribal” and the Nagaland state assembly should pass a resolution against it, the Naga People’s Front has demanded.
The Forest (Conservation) Amendment Act received the assent of President Droupadi Murmu on August 4, a notification by the law ministry said on Saturday. The law will come into effect once the central government notifies it in the gazette. The Rajya Sabha passed it on August 2 after it was cleared by the Lok Sabha on July 26.
“The forest bill is now a law. It has been passed by both houses of Parliament. At one glance, people will appreciate the bill because it is for sustainable development. But there are many hidden agendas in that bill. It completely undermines the powers of the state government. Earlier, they would need state’s permission for forest related matters. Now they don’t,” said Nagaland lawmaker Küzholüzo Nienü, also known as Azo Nienu, leader of the front.
“This is in direct conflict with Article 371 A, a special provision that grants a degree of autonomy to Nagaland,” he said. “We have demanded that a suitable law be passed to counter the Forest Amendment Act and its impact be discussed during the next assembly session on September 11,” he added.
During the proceedings of the joint parliamentary committee that cleared all the amendments proposed by the environment ministry, several MPs raised several questions on the proposed exemptions, particularly the 100km exemption for environmental clearance for forests along international borders to be used for construction of strategic linear projects of national importance, and those concerning national security.
This could cause unrest in the northeastern states, the MPs said, according to those aware of the matter. They also flagged concerns with more central control over forests, which could impact the Centre-state dynamics in the governance of forests, the people said, seeking anonymity.
For example, an opposition MP and member of the committee had said the provision will be cutting into one-third of Manipur, Nagaland and other northeastern states. The Border Security Force’s jurisdiction of 20km from the border has already impacted in the border states, according to him.
Another MP from a northeastern state, and an ally of the Bharatiya Janata Party, is said to have raised concerns about how the law would impact consent by village councils since a clause on obtaining prior consent was missing for forest clearance proposals related to any infrastructure project from the Forest Conservation Rules 2022.
“We have excluded the gram aabhas and the district commissioners, which are under the control of the central government and have the entire power to give permissions for these proposals or issue certificates. So, though it has not been mentioned in these amendments, it is something I came across and it is something that I felt concerning,” the MP said in April. He declined being named.
Some MPs had sought information on the impediments in the existing forest conservation law that hindered the growth and security interests of the country.
Certain ministries also flagged that it takes up to six months or more in clearing road projects in border areas, which has become a hurdle, those aware of the proceedings also said. As for what will be considered to be “strategic” will be in consonance with the ministries of home and defence, and therefore, the new law uses the clause “in a manner as may be prescribed”. MPs are said to have raised concerns that the ambit remains vague, leaving room for speculation and tension in border states.
Certain members also objected to a clause that allows the Centre to issue directions to any authority under the central or state governments or Union Territory administration, or to any organisation, as may be necessary for the implementation of the modified law.
The Union environment ministry, according to those aware of the matter, submitted that in the past 40 years, the Forest Conservation Act, 1980, has been focusing only on the diversion, but not on climate commitments of achieving net- zero emissions and the commitment to control carbon emissions. The “dictionary meaning” interpretation of the Supreme Court also adversely impacted the people who wanted to grow trees on their private land. By exempting private plantations from the ambit of the conservation law, the government seeks to boost agro-forestry, it said.
“The FCA Amendment Bill is a clear attempt to shrink the scope of the FCA, undercut the Godavarman judgement, and create further loopholes and exemptions in the forest clearance process. It will speed up the destruction of forests in the rich, biodiverse regions of the northeast and the rest of the Himalayas,” Sharachchandra Lele, distinguished fellow in environmental policy and governance at Ashoka Trust for Research in Ecology and the Environment, had said last week in his response to the bill. “The rights of communities, already sidelined in the 2022 amendment to FC Rules, will be further eroded.”
“Godavarman judgement of 1996 brought those lands that are covered with forest but for some reason not tagged as forest in the records in the purview of the FCA. For instance, some patches of dense forest in the Karnataka Western Ghats are tagged as gomaal (grazing land). Others are tagged as assessed waste land. Many forested lands in the northeast were community lands and not recorded as forests,” he pointed out. “All these will now lose the protection of the FCA against arbitrary diversion.”