Parliament clears contentious bill that seeks to amend forest act
Hundreds of legal and environmental experts have flagged potentially damaging clauses in the bill that might endanger as much as 25% of India’s forest cover.
The Rajya Sabha cleared the contentious Forest Conservation (Amendment) bill 2023 on Wednesday, opening the door for development and exploitation of vast tracts of forest lands that are not recorded as such in government records and potentially endangering sensitive ecosystems in the Northeast that fall under a national security exemption.
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With this, the bill that seeks to overhaul India’s forest management with far-reaching changes, including in the definition of what constitutes a forest, has been approved by Parliament. Hundreds of legal and environmental experts have flagged potentially damaging clauses in the bill that might endanger as much as 25% of India’s forest cover.
And, with the controversial Biological Diversity Amendment bill -- which sparked a row for exempting users of traditional knowledge and Ayush practitioners from sharing benefits with local communities -- that was passed by the Upper House on Tuesday, it marks the beginning of a new era in India’s environmental protection regime.
The forest bill was passed after a debate lasting one hour and 40 minutes without any member from the Opposition that walked out over the violence in Manipur. Eleven Members of Parliament (MPs) spoke during the debate, including five from the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP). The bill was passed by the Lok Sabha on July 26.
Union environment minister Bhupender Yadav dismissed the criticism of the bill, and said that the Narendra Modi government was far more successful in conserving forests than previous Congress governments.
“India is working on future infrastructure in a way that our forests are not disturbed and connectivity and connection can also go rapidly,” Yadav said.
The government says the bill aims to update the country’s forest conservation laws that are four decades old, eradicate a maze of ad-hoc definitions, bolster development and national security, while helping India fulfil its climate pledges by promoting agroforestry and increasing tree cover.
But experts have zeroed in on some controversial provisions that they say could ravage India’s forests.
The bill covers only land that was declared or notified as a forest under the Indian Forest Act, 1927 or under any other law. It also seeks to recognise only forest lands that were recorded as forests as on or after October 25, 1980 (when the forest conservation law came into effect). In effect, this could leave out large swathes of land that are managed as forests by states but aren’t recognised as such. It could also fall afoul of the Supreme Court’s landmark verdict in Godavarman vs Union of India, which bestowed protections to any land that fit the dictionary definition of forests.
Then, the bill exempts strategic national security projects on land situated within 100 kilometres of international borders, Line of Control and Line of Actual Control, from environmental clearances. This, experts fear, could endanger sensitive ecosystems in the Northeast, where some whole states could fall under the 100km exemption.
The bill also exempts zoos and eco-safaris from green norms. “We want to create an atmosphere where local people will be able to generate an income and they will participate in more and more eco-tourism activities. They have traditional knowledge about all wild animals,” Yadav said.
“Finally, another important reason for this amendment is that we import timber. We can promote agroforestry and our tribal people can grow these trees. We are trying to improve people’s lives,” he added.
Taken together, the forest and biodiversity bills, mark a key shift in India’s environmental protection philosophy on three counts -- moving from a protection-oriented approach to opening up of lands for strategic and other uses, reducing the compliance burden on the government and other industries, and moving away from more liberal definitions that sought to safeguard more forest land and help local communities, but were also considered unwieldy and difficult to legislate on.
During the debate on the Van (Sanrakshan Evam Samvardhan) Adhiniyam 2023, some leaders raised concerns about these issues.
Prashant Nanda of the Biju Janata Dal said that certain provisions are likely to adversely impact tribal populations and other forest dwellers. “I only see exemptions. How will we do samvardhan (developing/enriching) of forests? Can the minister please help us understand. Odisha, where I come from, has the third-largest tribal population. There are 62 tribes and 13 of them are primitive tribes. This act should not pose problems for the agenda of tribal welfare,” he said.
Nanda also said that it’s not a good decision to exempt deemed forests from the ambit of bill. “Deemed forests (which fit the dictionary meaning of a forest) should also be included as per the judgement of 1996... I want to ask you, what is the cost of a 100-year-old tree? Is it only the value of its timber or also the oxygen, water, shelter to birds it has provided? Does a tree have any rights?” he asked.
S Niranjan Reddy of the YSR Congress Party said he was conflicted . ”There is a lurking fear in my mind that this will open the floodgates for diversion of forests...we need strong checks in any good law,” he said.
Hishey Lachungpa from the Sikkim Democratic Front party said unclassified utility lands are used and conserved by tribal populations in Sikkim. He requested the minister to exempt these lands from the purview of the bill and transfer them to the state list. Forests fall under the concurrent list.
Munisamy Thambidurai of the All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (AIADMK) said that in a federal structure, states should have an equal say but this was not the case. “Elephants are destroying farmers’ fields in Tamil Nadu. How can we conserve the forest in a way so they do not encroach on human habitations?” he asked while adding that the title of the bill should be in regional languages. “People in non-Hindi speaking states do not understand the meaning of your programmes,” he added.
In his response, Yadav said during 1950 and 1980, around 4.5 million ha land was diverted, but after that period, one million ha was diverted with 1.2 million also covered under compensatory afforestation.
“Under our international commitments which are our nationally determined contributions, we have three quantifiable goals. India is the only G20 country to achieve them nine years in advance. Our third goal is related to carbon sink and green cover. How can we achieve that? How can we improve green cover and at the same time bring social and economic development? That is why we have brought this amendment,” said Yadav.
He said that the amendment was not in conflict with the forest rights act. “There is no dilution on that front...In fact, this amendment is being made keeping in mind our tribal friends. In Chhattisgarh or Telangana in left wing extremism affected areas, do our tribal friends need to come to Delhi to build based public infrastructure like toilets, dispensaries, hostels? We are trying to connect people’s homes with roads,” he added.
Some experts said they were disappointed that Opposition members did not debate on the bill. “Opposition leaders chose to boycott the proceeding, neglecting their parliamentary responsibility ...regrettably, this will likely be remembered as the bleakest day in Indian environmental law. Parliamentary proceedings play a crucial role in law-making by serving as the primary record for legislative intent and major concerns related to a Bill. This serves as a fundamental reference point for future interpretations and amendments. As a result, it has a profound impact on shaping the course of legislation,” said Debadityo Sinha of the Vidhi Centre for Legal Policy.
Congress leader and chair of the standing committee of science and technology, environment, forests and climate change, Jairam Ramesh, released a statement on Wednesday, and opposed the bill.
“The journey of the bill to soon becoming law is a case study on how to completely subvert the legislative process. The bill should have been referred to the standing committee on science & technology, environment, forests and climate change that I chair. I had taken serious objections to this and put them on record as well not once but twice. Instead, a joint committee of parliament (JCP) was set up with a ruling party MP as its chair. Be that as it may, the JCP submitted its report on July 20, 2023. Extraordinarily and perhaps in an unprecedented move, the report suggested no changes whatsoever to the bill as introduced by the government. However, six MPs submitted detailed notes of dissent, with which I associate myself fully,” he said.