The Lok Sabha passed the Forest Conservation Bill 2023 with no substantive change from original version. It ignores strong public objections that highlights a number of concerns. The bill seeks to amend the Forest Conservation Act 1980 which is the Forest Conservation Act1980 which is the main law governing the use of Forest land in India.
The Problem Area: The Forest Conservation Act of 1960, which the bill aims to amend, admittedly and justifiably adopted a rather protectionist stance which made forest clearance time consuming and costly to obtain.
While current development needs and priorities must be recognized, this bill deviates in a significant manner from the spirit of original law.
The bill significantly restricts the application of landmark Godavarman judgement of 1996 which had extended the scope of 1980 Act to the dictionary meaning of forest that is, area with trees rather than just area legally notified as forest.
The present amendment restricts the forest conservation act to only legally notified forests and forests recorded in government record on or after October 25, 1980. This change could potentially impact around 28% of the forest cover.
Second the bill excludes some of India’s most fragile ecosystems, as it removes the need for forest clearance for security related infrastructure upto 100 Km of international border. These include globally recognised biodiversity hotspots such as the forests of northeastern India and high-altitude Himalayan forests.
Third the bill introduces exemptions for construction projects such as Zoos, Safari, Ports and eco-tourism facilities.
The also grants unrestricted powers to union government to specify any desired use beyond those specified in original or amended act. Such provisions raise legitimate concerns about the potential exploitation of forest resources with adequate environment scrutiny.
Exclusion of local communities: The bill does not make reference to other relevant forest laws for instance the ST and other Forest Dwellers Act 2006, finds no mention. it means the forest people’s institution need not to be consulted. This is not a matter of equity.
In neighbouring Nepal, the handling over the forest to local community forest user group is credited to have helped the country increase its forest cover from 26% to 45 % over three decades.
Conclusion: The importance of India’s natural ecosystem must be valued. Recently Joshimath
In Uttarakhand has shown the need for proper geological and environmental assessments for all development projects.
If India is to meet its net zero carbon commitments it would be wise to further the participation of forest people rather than to exclude them.
Forest and other natural ecosystems can not be considered as luxury. They are an absolute necessity.