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How proposed changes to Forest Act could pave way for more environmental damage

The proposed amendments mainly focus on permitting non-forest activities in forest lands owned by private or public parties.

On November 1, Prime Minister Narendra Modi announced that India will reach its net-zero carbon emission target by 2070, at the COP26 climate talks in Glasgow, Scotland. The same day, back home, the deadline for public objections or recommendations to the proposed amendments in the Forest (Conservation) Act, 1980, ended. The proposed amendments chiefly focus on permitting non-forest activities — cultivation, construction, mining — in private forest land and state or Union government-notified forest land, where the owner can be any private or public sector entity. However, environmentalists argued that the amendments would only sabotage India’s already delayed 2070 target to avert cataclysmic climate change impact, and give a wider leeway to private players. 

Forests are one of the critical elements in the fight against climate change. Apart from sustaining terrestrial biodiversity and livelihoods, forests significantly absorb the carbon dioxide released into the air. According to the Forest Survey of India Assessment Report 2015, India’s forest and tree cover can absorb 29.62 billion tonnes of carbon dioxide equivalent. Under the 2015 Paris Agreement, India has committed to expanding the forest and tree cover by 2030 to create an additional (cumulative) carbon sink of 2.5 to 3 billion tonnes of carbon dioxide equivalent. However, if the amendments were to come into force, it will only heighten greenhouse gas emissions, with no forest cover to mitigate the impact. 

The Forest Conservation Act is the apex law in India to prevent deforestation, by prohibiting tree felling and other non-forestry activities on forest land without the permission of the Union or state governments. In the notification inviting comments and opinions on the proposed amendments, Assistant Inspector General of Forests Sandeep Sharma argued that India has thus far introduced laws that are in tandem with the “dynamic changes in the ecological and economic needs of our country.” However, “to effectively fit into the present circumstances, particularly for accelerated integration of conservation and development, it has become necessary to further amend the Act.” 

Environmentalists, who argue otherwise, pointed out that the proposed amendments do not fit into the present circumstances. Some alleged that the amendments have not included a panoply of crucial factors, while others said they would enormously affect the present conservation of forests. They said the proposed amendments will only aid in massive tree felling and destruction of the ecosystem.


Proposed amendments 

Proposal one: Exclude private lands of the forest category  

“Considering any private area as the forest would restrict the right of an individual to use his/her own land for any non-forestry activity,” reads the proposed amendment, adding that it would also devoid such private lands of vegetation even when the land has scope for planting activities. 

Proposal two: Exclude land owned by public sectors (such as the Railways Ministry, and Road, Transport and Highways Ministry) from the Act.

In some areas, the land acquired by such sectors for development purposes was only partially used and the leftover tracts have been used for forest purposes under various government schemes, according to the proposal. If the Ministry exempts such lands acquired before October 25, 1980, from the purview of the Act, the landholding agency can use it for non-forest purposes. 

Proposal three: Encourage extensive plantations and afforestation in all possible available lands outside the government forests. 

According to the Union government, this is to (1) meet India’s 2030 target of creating an additional carbon sink (of 2.5 to 3.0 billion tonnes of CO2 equivalent); and (2) reduce the flow of foreign exchange from importing wood and its derivatives to the tune of approximately Rs 45,000 crore. 

Proposal four: Allow non-forestry use of forest land, for strategic and security projects of national importance. 

“Given the present scenario of obtaining approval for non-forestry use of forest land, many a time, strategic and security projects of national importance get delayed resulting in a setback to the development of such infrastructure at critical locations,” the Ministry pointed out. It proposed letting the state governments issue permits for such projects and ensuring their timely completion, instead of waiting for prior approval of the Union government.

Proposal five: State governments would not require prior permission from the Union government to lease forest land to private citizens.  

The proposal suggested deleting Section 2(iii) of the Forest Conservation Act, which says that the state government requires prior approval of the Union government to allot forest land for lease to any private person or to any authority, corporation, agency or any other organisation not owned, managed or controlled by the government. It also proposed to clarify that Section 2(ii) of the Act — any forest land or any portion thereof may be used for any non-forest purpose — can be invoked for any kind of lease assignment for non-forestry purposes. 

Proposal six: Bring certain technologies to extract oil and natural gas (mining) from forests without hampering the ecosystem. 

One such technology it had suggested is the Extended Reach Drilling (ERD), which enables exploration or extraction of oil and natural gas deep beneath the forest land by drilling holes from outside the forest areas. The Ministry claims it would not impact the soil or aquifer that supports the forest in the forest land. 

Proposal seven: Exclude ecotourism from the non-forest activities. 

The Ministry proposes that zoos, safaris, forest training infrastructures, etc should not come within the meaning of “non-forestry activity” for the purpose of Section 2(ii) of the Act. 

Proposal eight: Private citizens and the public sector should be able to access forests to use roads and railway lines close to the forest region. 

“These facilities (both private and government) need access (approach roads/rail) and that invariably pass through the strip of notified forest area along the road/rail line,” the Ministry said. Currently, the Act places restrictions on the dereservation of forests or the use of forest land for non-forest purposes.


The objections 

Environmentalists had raised several objections to many of the proposed amendments by the Union Ministry.  

Environmental conservation organisation United Conservation Movement (UCM) shot a letter to the Forest Conservation Department, listing out their objections to the proposed amendments. Objecting to exclude private lands of the forest category, UCM said that clauses on excluding private land would benefit the illegal encroachers, and that it is illegal to exclude acquired land (before 1980) from the forest area. “It is a well-known fact that Forest Conservation Act, 1980 does not deter private individuals from carrying out non-forestry activities,” it said.   

UCM pointed out that excluding private lands from forested areas could translate into instances where old trees will be felled for timber, giving no priority for conservation. Instead of taking stringent steps to protect those trees, the Union government is trying to ensure supply chains for timber in international markets, it alleged. 

“Any large afforestation programme in private lands is aimed at timber after 10 years (timber matured in 10 years). A classic example of ensuring such trees could have been preserved is in the recent Muttil tree felling issue in Wayanad, Kerala, where the timber lobby had leveraged an illegal revenue order to coerce tribal families into felling 150-year-old rosewood trees in the Western Ghats. Several such trees are being felled every year for timber needs and the supply chain serves large timber companies trading in international markets,” the letter said.

Read: How Kerala govt failed in its orders, leading to the felling of centuries old rosewood

Regarding excluding land owned by the Railways, Transport, Highways and other public sectors from the Act, the UCM pointed to the 1996 TN Godavarman order of the Supreme Court, which was a watershed moment in defining what a forest is. “It would be worthwhile for the Ministry to spend more time reading up the TN Godavarman court order to ensure linear intrusions are not exempted from the purview of the Forest Conservation Act.” 

“In Karnataka alone, 21 lakh old-growth trees are being felled for national highway projects. In Kodagu and Wayanad districts of Western Ghats, for a power transmission line of 400 kilovolts, one lakh trees were chopped and several tonnes of carbon dioxide released into the atmosphere,” UCM pointed out in the letter. 

According to Wayanad Prakruthi Samrakshana Samiti (WPSS), an environmental organisation based in Wayanad, land owned by public sectors can be excluded from the Act, provided the areas do not fall adjacent to or within Protected Areas (sanctuaries and national parks), wildlife corridors and mangrove forests.

On the proposal to allow non-forestry use of forest land for strategic and national security projects, the Forest Ministry proposed, “In order to address such dynamic changes, Ministry is considering introducing an enabling provision in the Act to keep certain pristine forests showcasing rich ecological values intact for a specific period.”  

However, according to UCM, “Adding a specific period is equivalent to adding room for forest land diversions after that period. Forest conservation cannot be for a specific period, it must be for perpetuity.”  

WPSS noted that any further intervention to any patch of forests will “subsequently diminish the value of other adjacent forest lands, which may result in the application of Forest Conservation Act for non-forest purpose.” 

Allowing state governments to lease forest lands to private citizens, without the Union government’s approval, would only aid private mining leaseholders, environmentalists said. There is no intention of conservation here, they alleged. 

“The state governments will not have to approach the Union government to decide on giving a forest tract for lease. So the process becomes easier and the state government can easily give the forest land for lease to mining companies,” alleged N Badusha, president of WPSS.  

For instance, in Kerala, which has been witnessing floods and landslides over the past several years, private companies need a series of permits, including environmental clearance and permits from the Pollution Control Board, the Mining and Geology Department and the Forest Department. In 2020, the Kerala Assembly panel recommended bringing quarries under government control or public ownership than private companies. The state government, however, is reportedly yet to give their response to the recommendations. 

Read: Why local residents are opposing quarry coming up in Kerala’s Kottancheri hills

How Kerala govt is contributing to climate-related disasters via its infra projects

While the Union government proposed bringing certain technologies to extract oil and natural gas (mining) from forests, experts pointed to the Pronab Sen committee report on designating ecologically-sensitive areas in India. The report termed such explorations prohibited. The Ministry has used some of the foundational aspects in the report — preserving the forest, the criticality of the ecosystem, and the endemicity of the region — as the guidelines to ensure such explorations are considered prohibitory, pointed out UCM in their letter. “Technology should not be the deciding factor,” it added.  

UCM pointed out that the pumped power storage facility along the Sharavathi river in Karnataka had engaged Extended Reach Drilling (ERD) exploration of 877 hectares of forest lands. “The drill holes had created irreparable damage to the pristine wet evergreen forest patches, cut several rare, endangered and threatened flora species on the shrub and tree layer all across the length and breadth of the sanctuary,” it said in its letter. 

Wayanad Prakruthi Samrakshana Samiti said, “Mining and extended reach drilling will give away our forests to corporations and to huge companies. Instead of bringing stringent rules against this, the amendments will only cause deforestation 10 times more,” said N Badusha, WPSS president.

Excluding ecotourism activities such as forest safari from the non-forest activities will shift power into the hands of forest officials, which could have scope for misuse, according to some experts. “This will give extra room for luxury for corrupt forest officers to divert land for several recreational activities like swimming pool, resorts, sports ground, honey sales counter, car parking area that would give additional land area diverted for their own recreational needs. 

“There is a scope for misuse of power by respective states,” said WPSS. “If the proposed amendment is implemented, the area limit should be specified and such activities should be permitted only outside Protected Areas and wildlife corridors, at least two kilometres away from respective boundaries. Zoos and safaris should be permitted only after clearance from the health authorities in view of the potential spread of zoonotic diseases.”

Environmentalists also objected to allowing citizens and the public sector to access forests to use roads and railway lines. “The stripes of land along the forest road are critical to the ecosystem, both for flora and fauna, and hence they need to be regulated,” UCM said. 

Badusha alleged that encroachers have illegally taken some land near the forest, but cannot use them for construction or any activities as the Forest Department won’t provide a road to these lands. “If the proposed amendment gives access to roads through forests, these illegally encroached lands will have permits for constructions, which will destroy the wildlife,” pointed out WPSS.  


Other concerns 

Many environmentalists have urged the Forest Ministry to publish the proposed amendments in all regional languages across media platforms to allow all the public to read and understand without misinformation. Many pointed out that most of the illegal activities in forests are carried out by misinterpreting government orders and provisions under the law. 

“In the past decade, officials have diluted the provisions of the Act through different government orders,” said Meera Rajesh, a renowned environmentalist and representative of the United Conservation Movement (UCM). “None of such orders have strengthened or given more clarifications to FCA. This amendment will further dilute it, and we cannot afford that. Just like the forests, we need to consider grasslands, too, as they have a critical function to play in the ecosystem.”

Various environmental organisations in Kerala also organised a webinar to discuss the proposed amendments. Dr TV Sajeev, the Principal Scientist at Kerala Forest Research Institute (KFRI), prepared a detailed report based on the suggestions and criticisms raised in the webinar, and sent it to the Forest Conservation Department. 

“Ideally, any amendment to the Forest Conservation Act 1980 should have addressed the issues that have emerged during the past four decades viz. 1) Climate change-induced extreme climatic events and consequent disasters, 2) The emergence of zoonotic diseases attributed to loss of forest cover, 3) The growing involvement of forest dependant indigenous people in forest governance like FRA,” Dr Sajeev said in his report.  

Meera Rajesh also urged the Union government to provide incentives to private parties for protecting trees, especially old-growth trees, so that they are not chopped down.

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