The Forest (Conservation) Amendment Bill
The recently passed Forest (Conservation) Amendment Bill, 2023, has elicited mixed reactions and significant concerns from the public and environmental experts. Although its Preamble boasts ambitious environmental goals, the operative part of the Bill raises questions about its true intentions.
GS-02 (Government policies and Intervention)
Critically analyze the implications of the Forest (Conservation) Amendment Bill, 2023, with regard to the narrowed definition of forests, exclusion of ecologically significant tracts, and the granting of sanction to additional activities. Discuss the potential environmental and socio-economic consequences of these provisions and suggest measures to ensure a balanced approach between development and conservation. (250 words)
Dimensions of the article:
- Narrowed Definition of Forests: Impact on India’s Forest Cover
- Exclusion of Fragile Ecosystems: Security vs. Biodiversity
- Unfettered Powers: Concerns about Environmental Scrutiny
- Disenfranchising Forest People
- Exclusions that Raise Eyebrows
Narrowed Definition of Forests: Impact on India’s Forest Cover
- One of the contentious aspects of the Amendment is its restriction of the Forest Conservation Act to only legally notified forests and those recorded in government records after October 25, 1980.
- This seemingly innocuous change may have far-reaching consequences, impacting around 28% of India’s forest cover, encompassing nearly 2,00,000 square kilometers. Such forests include not only fruit orchards and plantations but also pristine forests of exceptional conservation value.
- For instance, the Unclassed Forests in Nagaland, which have enjoyed centuries of protection and use by autonomous clans, have not been officially recognized as forests. Now, under the Amendment, these ecologically significant areas could be susceptible to destruction for construction and development, signaling a potential setback to conservation efforts.
- Additionally, regions like the Aravalli Hills in the Delhi National Capital Region, vital to the water security of the area, might also face adverse effects due to this amendment.
Exclusion of Fragile Ecosystems: Security vs. Biodiversity
- Another contentious issue is the exclusion of security-related infrastructure up to 100 km of international borders from requiring forest clearances. Although aimed at fast-tracking strategic and security projects, this move has raised concerns about the implications for biodiversity hotspots.
- Forests in northeastern India and high-altitude Himalayan forests and meadows, recognized globally for their ecological importance, could now face potential threats from unchecked development in the name of national security.
Unfettered Powers: Concerns about Environmental Scrutiny
- The Amendment introduces exemptions for construction projects such as zoos, safari parks, and eco-tourism facilities. While promoting tourism and recreational spaces is essential, these artificially created green areas cannot fully replace the ecosystem services provided by natural forests.
- Furthermore, granting unrestricted powers to the Union government to specify ‘any desired use’ beyond the Act’s scope raises legitimate concerns about potential resource exploitation without sufficient environmental scrutiny.
- Striking a balance between development and conservation is crucial, and transparency in decision-making becomes paramount.
Disenfranchising Forest People
- Notably, the Amendment makes no mention of other relevant forest laws, like the Scheduled Tribes and Other Traditional Forest-dwellers (Recognition of Forest Rights) Act, 2006. The exclusion and ease of diversion of forest areas imply that forest people’s institutions may no longer be consulted, which raises concerns about equity and inclusivity.
- Contrasting this with Nepal’s experience, where handing over forests to local community forest user groups resulted in a remarkable increase in forest cover, India should consider further engaging forest communities to achieve its net zero carbon commitments and enhance forest cover. Disenfranchising the very communities whose livelihoods depend on these forests could hinder the Bill’s intended goals.
Exclusions that Raise Eyebrows
- While some argue that forest clearances under the previous Act needed improvements, blanket exemptions for certain sectors might not be the optimal solution.
- Instead, rectifying the flaws in existing processes would ensure adequate assessment of project impacts and environmental mitigation measures.
- Certainly, fast-tracking strategic and security-related projects is justified, and administrative processes can be expedited. However, the Amendment should not lead to undermining the value of India’s natural ecosystems.
- Recent incidents in Joshimath, Uttarakhand, underscore the importance of rigorous geological and environmental assessments for all development projects, especially in regions proximate to ecologically sensitive areas.
- To uphold the true spirit of the Bill’s Preamble and align with India’s commitments towards net zero emissions and increased forest cover, it is imperative to address the concerns raised by environmental experts. The Bill must be reevaluated to strike a balance between development and conservation, and safeguards must be put in place to protect ecologically significant regions from unfettered exploitation.
- Furthermore, meaningful consultation with forest communities and acknowledgment of their rights are essential to foster sustainable forest management and enhance forest cover. Embracing transparency and involving stakeholders in decision-making processes will promote equitable and environmentally responsible outcomes.
The Forest (Conservation) Amendment Bill, 2023, despite its promising Preamble, requires thoughtful reconsideration to ensure it aligns with India’s environmental commitments and sustainable development goals. Narrowing the definition of forests, excluding ecologically significant areas, and granting unfettered powers without adequate environmental scrutiny are concerns that need urgent attention. Empowering forest communities and upholding their rights can pave the way for a more inclusive and effective approach to conservation. Striking the right balance between development and environmental protection will safeguard India’s natural ecosystems, which are indispensable for the well-being of both the nation and its people.