The Forest (Conservation) Amendment Act, 2023 represents a significant revision of the Forest Conservation Act, 1980. It introduces substantial changes, including redefining the Act’s scope, allowing for forest land diversions for ‘non-forest purposes,’ and exempting certain forest lands from its purview, especially near India’s borders. This Act aims to balance forest conservation with developmental needs, particularly in border areas and for strategic projects. However, it has raised concerns about potential impacts on forest cover and wildlife, especially in the northeastern states, and about its alignment with the Supreme Court’s directives on forest conservation.
Context of the Amendment Act
- Historical Background: The Indian Forest Act, 1927 focused primarily on timber and forest resource management. It enabled state governments to designate forest land as reserved or protected. The Forest (Conservation) Act, 1980, aimed at curbing deforestation, required central government approval for any diversion of forest land for non-forest purposes.
- Changing Forest Cover: India’s forest cover increased by 38,251 sq. km from 2001 to 2021, mainly in open forest areas with 10-40% canopy density. However, dense forest cover with over 40% canopy density decreased by 10,140 sq. km during the same period.
- Increasing Pressures on Forest Land: The Standing Committee on Science and Technology, Environment and Forests (2019) noted growing pressure on forest land due to industrial, agricultural demands, and the need for forest produce. copyright©iasexpress.net
- Modifications in the 2023 Amendment: The 2023 Amendment Act modifies criteria for including and excluding forest land under the Act and expands the list of permissible forest activities. It also adjusts the approach towards land classified as forest before and after specific dates in historical records.
Key Changes in the Amendment Act
- Scope of Applicability: The Act now applies to land declared as forest under the Indian Forest Act, 1927, or in government records post-1980. Land used for non-forest purposes before December 12, 1996, is excluded.
- Exemptions for Specific Lands: The Act exempts land within 100 km of India’s borders for national security projects, small roadside amenities, and public roads leading to habitations.
- Assignment of Forest Land: State governments now require central government approval to assign forest land to any entity, including those controlled by the government.
- Permitted Activities in Forests: The Act specifies permissible activities, like check posts, fencing, and bridges, and extends these to include zoos, safaris, eco-tourism facilities, and silvicultural operations.
- Exclusions for Certain Lands: Land recorded as a forest before October 25, 1980, but not notified as such, is excluded from the Act, potentially conflicting with Supreme Court directives.
- Implications for Pre-1996 Land Use Changes: Land that transitioned from forest to non-forest use before December 12, 1996, is exempted from the Act’s provisions. copyright©iasexpress.net
- Decentralization of Approval for Specific Projects: The Act removes the need for central government approval for certain projects, like strategic linear projects near borders, security-related infrastructure, and defense projects in left-wing extremism affected areas.
Benefits of the Forest Conservation Amendment Act 2023
- Clarity on Forest Definition: The Act addresses ambiguities related to “deemed forests,” providing clear guidelines on its application to notified and recorded forests. This aims to streamline forest management and legal processes.
- Climate Change Mitigation: Aligning with national and international commitments, the Act promotes afforestation, productivity enhancement, and carbon neutrality efforts, contributing to global climate change mitigation strategies.
- Facilitation of Development: By removing certain forest areas from legal jurisdiction, the Act facilitates economic exploitation, potentially driving economic growth and infrastructure development.
- National Security Focus: Exempts linear projects near borders from stringent conservation rules, thus supporting the construction of infrastructure crucial for national security.
- Promotion of Compensatory Afforestation: The Act encourages private entities to undertake afforestation projects, thus contributing to environmental conservation, despite past ambiguities in the Compensatory Afforestation Act.
- Empowering Local Communities: By supporting activities like zoos and ecotourism, the Act aims to foster wildlife awareness and create livelihood opportunities for local communities, potentially boosting local economies.
- Economic Initiatives: The Act allows for initiatives like ecotourism, safaris, and environmental entertainment, aimed at enhancing forest-dependent livelihoods and promoting sustainable use of forest resources. copyright©iasexpress.net
Key Issues and Analysis
- Exclusions Contrary to Supreme Court Judgment: Excluding land recorded as forest pre-1980 and land converted to non-forest use pre-1996 may conflict with a 1996 Supreme Court judgment aimed at preventing deforestation.
- Impact on North-Eastern States: Exempting land near borders for national security projects could significantly affect forest cover and wildlife, especially in the biodiverse north-eastern states.
- Exemptions for Certain Projects: Blanket exemptions for projects like zoos, eco-tourism, and reconnaissance surveys might negatively impact forest land and wildlife.
- Diversion of Forest Land Decisions: Under the 1927 Act, state governments decided on forest land diversions. The 1980 Act added a central government approval layer. The 2023 Amendment modifies these requirements, potentially affecting forest conservation.
- Challenges in Border Areas: Large portions of the north-eastern region fall within the 100 km exemption zone for border areas, which may accelerate forest cover loss and impact biodiversity.
- Potential Inefficiency in Reducing Project Delays: Exempting security projects from central government approval may not effectively reduce delays, as significant delays occur at the state level.
- Balancing Economic Activities and Forest Conservation: The Act’s new provisions for economic activities in forests, like mineral prospecting and eco-tourism, raise concerns about balancing economic development with forest conservation.
Impact of the 2023 Amendment on Indigenous Communities
- Reduced Recognition of Rights: Indigenous communities may face diminished recognition of traditional rights over forest lands, such as Community Forest Rights (CFR), due to the amendment. copyright©iasexpress.net
- Impact on Tribal Rights: The amendment overrides the need for tribal gram sabhas’ consent for non-forest use, potentially favoring private interests over indigenous rights.
- Changes in Land Use: Alterations in forest land use could significantly affect the livelihoods and cultural practices of indigenous groups. Specific impacts have been observed in areas like Mendha-Lekha in Maharashtra, Loyendi in Odisha, and Malakkappara in Kerala.
- Community Consultation Concerns: Limited consultation with indigenous communities may lead to decisions impacting their territories without adequate representation or consideration of their perspectives.
- Economic Disruptions and Opportunities: While economic projects like infrastructure development could bring benefits, they also pose disruptions to the lifestyle and economic stability of indigenous communities.
- Challenges in Environmental Stewardship: Indigenous communities, often the stewards of local ecosystems, might struggle to maintain environmental balance due to the new regulations and land use changes.
- Potential for Displacement: The construction of linear projects could lead to the displacement of indigenous communities from their ancestral lands, causing socio-cultural and economic upheavals.
- Legal Protections Under Threat: Legal safeguards previously protecting indigenous rights and forest management might face challenges, potentially diminishing the communities’ ability to protect and manage forests sustainably.
- Exploitation and Cultural Erosion: The permission for private entities to utilize forest land for ecotourism and infrastructure development may lead to increased forest exploitation, affecting tribal livelihoods. Mass tourism can also result in the cultural erosion of local traditions, with the benefits of tourism often not equitably reaching the indigenous communities. copyright©iasexpress.net
- Centralization of Power: The amendment consolidates more power in the hands of the central government, potentially excluding local authorities and communities from decision-making processes related to forest conservation. States with significant indigenous populations like Nagaland, Sikkim, Mizoram, and Tripura have raised objections, particularly to the exemptions granted to linear projects within a 100-kilometre range from international borders.
The Forest (Conservation) Amendment Act, 2023 necessitates a comprehensive approach moving forward:
- Comprehensive Stakeholder Consultation: Involving all stakeholders, including indigenous communities, in the decision-making process is crucial. This will ensure that the diverse interests and rights of different groups are adequately represented and respected.
- Transparency in Decision Making: Transparency in decisions related to forest land use, exemptions, and infrastructure projects is essential to foster trust and ensure accountability.
- Periodic Review Mechanism: Implementing a robust mechanism for periodic review of the Act’s impact on forests, biodiversity, and communities is vital. This will allow for timely amendments and adjustments based on feedback and changing circumstances.
- Empowering Local Communities: It is important to empower local and tribal communities in decision-making processes. This empowers them to actively participate in and influence decisions that affect their lives, rights, and the environment they depend on.
- Reinforcing Legal Safeguards: Strengthening legal protections for the rights and traditional knowledge of indigenous and local communities is key to ensuring sustainable forest management and conservation. copyright©iasexpress.net
Practice Question for Mains
Evaluate the key provisions and potential impacts of the Forest Conservation Amendment Act 2023 on India’s environmental conservation efforts. (250 words)