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Forest lands losing cover due to revisions in laws! 

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Forest lands losing cover due to revisions in laws! 

On July 20, the Union government tabled the Joint Parliamentary Committee (JPC) report assessing Bill to amend the Forest Conservation Act in the Lok Sabha. Ever since the amendment was first proposed, it has garnered stiff opposition on a host of issues like vast tracts of forestlands losing the protective cover of the Act by narrowing down the definition of what constitutes a forest, exceptions from forest clearance for linear infrastructure up to 100 kms from the country’s border, and according exemptions to various forest diversion activities.

On July 11, the JPC officially cleared the bill without proposing a single change while individual members filed dissent notes. This is despite the environment ministry offering inadequate justifications for the amendments made during the JPC process as shown by a document.  


Let us examine the issues highlighted clause by clause:

(1)  consider how the ministry claims in the document that provisions of the Act will be applicable on “revenue forest land, private forest land, and other land recorded as forest in the records” in response to concerns that many eco-sensitive areas which haven’t been recorded as forests in government records (like large sections of the Aravalli range) will no longer require forest clearance and be open for commercialisation.

(2) Bill states the Act will only apply to lands that have been declared or notified as a forest under relevant laws or have been recorded as forests in the government’s records. But, as pointed out by experts, “The Himalaya and the Brahmaputra are the Himalaya and the Brahmaputra regardless of whether they are notified as such.”

(3) The ministry has also claimed that forest lands have been identified by expert committees at the state and Union territory level, in pursuance of the 1996 T.N. Godavarman case and that “the same have already been taken on record and hence the provision of the Act will remain applicable on such lands also”. But the ministry’s stance that forests have been identified by relevant expert committees ignores the fact that some committees are yet to finalise the process of identification of forestlands in some states.

Prerna Bindra, a conservationist and former member of the National Board for Wildlife, said, “We don’t know how many states have submitted these expert committee reports, and if so, whether they have followed the parameters set by the Supreme Court for identifying such areas. Has the environment ministry reviewed the process to understand whether it was scientific, exhaustive, and reflects ground realities – or not?”

(4) Another issue highlighted is that the ministry is relying excessively on the rule-making powers of the executive to justify the amendments. In its comments, the environment ministry has repeatedly included references to “terms and conditions” that are as yet undefined to carve out exemptions from forest clearances for purposes like border infrastructure. “The ambiguity leaves room for dilutions,” said Meenakshi Kapoor, an independent researcher working on environmental policy.

(5) The internal JPC document also shows that the ministry has deflected from answering why it has proposed a change to the title of the Act to Hindi – ‘Van Sanrakshan Evam Samvardhan’ – which is against linguistic federalist principles of the Constitution of India.


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