Balancing Conservation and Development: The Complexities of the Forest (Conservation) Amendment Bill, 2023
The Forest (Conservation) Amendment Bill, 2023, currently under scrutiny by a Joint Committee of Parliament, has sparked intense debates regarding the intricate task of striking a balance between industrial progress and preserving our precious forest ecosystems.
GS-02, GS-03 – (Conservation, Issues related to development, Forest resources)
- Forest (Conservation) Act, (FC) 1980
- Afforestation and Plantation.
- Discuss the Forest (Conservation) Amendment Bill, 2023, and its implications for balancing industrial development and forest conservation in India. Examine the need for scientific evidence to support changes in conservation laws. Provide suggestions for the way forward. (250 words)
Dimensions of the Article:
- Expansion of Forest Protection
- Inadequacies of the Forest (Conservation) Act, 1980
- Concerns and Criticisms
Expansion of Forest Protection:
- The landmark Supreme Court judgment in the T.N. Godavarman Thirumalpad case (1996) broadened the scope of forest protection beyond officially classified forests to encompass even non-notified ones.
- However, despite these efforts, the increase in India’s forest cover has remained minimal, as evidenced by biennial reports from the Forest Survey of India.
- The growth in tree cover within officially recorded forests has stagnated, whereas orchards, plantations, and village homesteads have witnessed a notable surge, contributing to India’s claim of 24% forest and tree cover.
- In line with its international climate commitments, India aims to increase this number to 33% and establish a carbon sink of 2.5 to 3 billion tons of CO2 by 2030.
Inadequacies of the Forest (Conservation) Act, 1980:
- The existing Forest (Conservation) Act, 1980, as evaluated by the Ministry of Environment, proved insufficient in incentivizing private agro-forestry and tree plantation activities.
- During the period from 2019 to 2021, India managed to add 1,540 square kilometers of forest cover, with 1,509 square kilometers outside the recorded forest area.
- The recent amendments to the Forest Act address these concerns by explicitly defining the limitations of the 1996 judgment. The Act now applies only to land classified as ‘forest’ in government records from 1980 onwards.
- Moreover, forest land authorized by states for non-forestry purposes between 1980 and 1996 would be exempted from the Act’s provisions.
Concerns and Criticisms:
- The amendments, however, have attracted criticism for their alleged failure to contribute to natural forest regeneration and their inclination towards promoting afforestation for commercial purposes.
- Critics argue that the amendments focus more on grooming private forests, which may serve as temporary carbon stocks due to market incentives that favor their use as ‘carbon credits.
- Notably, the parliamentary committee responsible for reviewing the bill has refrained from expressing any opinion or providing suggestions for the way forward, raising concerns about the lack of a comprehensive approach.
Given the evolving climate realities and the imperative to align conservation laws with scientific evidence, it is crucial to adopt a measured approach to future policy changes. The following steps can guide the way forward:
- Evidence-based Decision Making: Any modifications to conservation laws must be underpinned by rigorous scientific research and empirical evidence. It is imperative to conduct thorough studies and consultations involving environmental experts, researchers, and stakeholders to ensure a holistic understanding of the potential impacts and benefits.
- Strengthening Natural Forest Regeneration: Emphasis should be placed on incentivizing measures that promote the regeneration of natural forests, rather than solely focusing on afforestation for commercial purposes. Encouraging sustainable practices, rewilding initiatives, and community participation can contribute to the long-term conservation of forest ecosystems.
- Ensuring Accountability and Monitoring: Robust monitoring mechanisms should be established to track the implementation of forest conservation policies. This includes effective surveillance of authorized land usage and periodic assessments of the ecological impact to prevent any misuse or degradation of forest resources.
The Forest (Conservation) Amendment Bill, 2023, has ignited debates concerning the delicate balance between industrial development and forest conservation. While the amendments aim to address existing gaps and promote private agro-forestry, concerns have been raised about their limited contribution to natural forest regeneration. To ensure sustainable development and effective conservation, it is crucial to base changes in conservation laws on scientific evidence, strengthen natural forest regeneration, and establish robust monitoring mechanisms. Striking the right balance will require a collective effort from policymakers, environmental experts, and society at large to safeguard our forests for future generations.