With the amended Act kicking in, Odisha has no ‘deemed forest’
The Odisha government has written to district officials to emphasize that “deemed forests” as a category will no longer exist and that industrial proposals to transfer forest land for non-forestry activities now must comply with the updated Forest Act.
What is the background behind the issue?
- The Odisha government has sent a letter to district officials highlighting the need to follow the modified Forest Act when making requests from industries to utilise forest land for non-forestry purposes.
- The phrase “deemed forest” describes territory that is thought to be forested but hasn’t received official notification as such from central or state authorities.
- The Supreme Court’s 1996 Godavarman decision mandated the states find unrecorded territory that met the “dictionary” definition of a forest and put it under forest protection.
What is Deemed Forests?
“Deemed forests” refer to territory that satisfies the requirements for becoming a forest but hasn’t been formally recognized as such by the federal or state governments. In other words, they are places that resemble forests in terms of vegetation and ecological traits, but which have not been legally classified as forests in official records or by legal standards.
In India, the idea of “deemed forests” became significant because of worries about conserving biodiversity and natural habitats. Such lands are frequently ecologically significant and can be extremely important for preserving species, sustaining ecological balance, and supporting other environmental activities.
What are the amendments bought by the Bill to The Forest (Conservation) Amendment Bill, 2023?
- Broadening the scope of the Act: The Bill suggests adding a Preamble to the Act to increase its breadth and represent the potential of its provisions. The Preamble, which is the first section of the Act, outlines the goals and intentions of the Act.
- Renaming the Act: The Act shall now go by the name “Van (Sanrakshan Evam Samvardhan) Adhiniyam, 1980.” The Act’s emphasis on the preservation and development of forests is intended to be highlighted by the renaming.
- Applicability clarification: To clear up any confusion, the Bill aims to specify where the Act is applicable in different types of lands. The following types of lands are covered under the Act:
- Forest land is any area that has been formally declared as a forest.
- Revenue forest land: Land that is listed in official documents as a forest.
- Lands like forests: Based on their definition in the dictionary, these are places that resemble forests.
- Exemptions: The Bill suggests a few exceptions to the Act’s regulations for particular initiatives and activities. The exceptions consist of:
- Projects that are within 100 km of international boundaries, the Line of Actual Control (LAC), and the Line of Control (LoC) will not be subject to this requirement.
- Forest land for connectivity: Forest land up to 0.10 hectares in size can be used to connect homes and businesses along roads and railways.
- Infrastructure for security-related projects is permitted to be built on up to 10 hectares of forest property.
- Areas impacted by left-wing extremism (LWE): Public utility projects are permitted on up to 5 hectares of forest land in LWE-affected areas.
How will it impact Odisha’s Forest lands?
- According to experts, about half of Odisha’s forest acreage was designated as “deemed forest.”
- The way the Odisha government is interpreting the revised Forest Act may hasten the deforestation process.
- The Environmental Ministry promised a parliamentary committee that “deemed forests” would still be conserved, but the government’s position goes against that promise.
How will it impact the protection of Forest Lands?
- The Forest Conservation Act would no longer be in effect if forest land was legitimately diverted for non-forest uses between 1980 and 1996 but was not formally classified as forest.
- This implies that forest land would lose its protected status unless it was formally recognized as such.
What is the way forward?
- Consultation and Clarification:
- To evaluate the potential effects of the reforms, the Odisha government should take into account holding open and thorough consultations with environmental specialists, communities, stakeholders, and legal experts.
- It’s crucial to have a thorough understanding of the desired results, potential hazards, and ecological effects before changing the protection status of “deemed forests.”
- Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA):
- Before making any changes to the protective status of forest lands, conduct rigorous environmental impact studies.
- The possible effects of the modifications on local ecosystems, biodiversity, water resources, and climate should be taken into account by the EIA.
- Community Participation:
- Participate in decision-making processes with local communities, especially those that depend on the forest and are indigenous.
- Recognize their customary techniques and skills for conserving and managing forests.
- Sustainable Development:
- Sustainable development aims to strike a balance between environmental preservation and economic development objectives.
- Investigate environmentally sound alternatives to the diversion of forest areas, such as fostering eco-friendly businesses, agroforestry, and nature-based tourism.
- Legal Clarity:
- Make sure that any modifications are compliant with current regional, national, and international environmental and indigenous rights legislative frameworks.
- Avoid any potential inconsistencies with judicial rulings like the 1996 Supreme Court decision on “deemed forests.”