Contentious Forest Conservation (Amendment) Bill 2023 Will Soon Be a Law

The Rajya Sabha cleared the Bill on August 2; no dissent was tabled against the controversial bill because opposition MPs had walked out of Parliament protesting the lack of discussion on the Manipur violence.

Kochi: In a move that will have huge ramifications for forest conservation in India, the Rajya Sabha on August 2 cleared the controversial Forest Conservation (Amendment) Bill 2023. Now, only the President’s Assent stands between the Bill being enacted as law under the Forest Conservation Act, 1980. The Act itself will have a new name: the Van (Sanrakshan Evam Samvardhan) Adhiniyam, 1980.

Markedly missing from the proceedings during the discussion of the Bill in the house were the Members of Parliament of opposition parties, who had walked out citing the lack of a statement by Prime Minister Narendra Modi on the violence in Manipur, and a discussion on the issue. As a result, no dissent was tabled against the Bill during the legislative process, though some members raised concerns. Citizens and experts have criticised opposition leaders on this.

The Bill has been controversial for the several drastic changes it proposes to the Forest Conservation Act,1980, including exempting huge tracts of forest land from the ambit of the Act due to “national security” and “defence” purposes.

A controversial Bill with far-reaching impacts

The Forest Conservation (Amendment) Bill 2023 amends the Forest Conservation Act of 1980, which provides for the conservation of forests across the country in several ways including restricting the use of forests for non-forest purposes (including cultivation) and providing for the constitution of a Forest Advisory Committee. The Union government has to get forest clearances from the Committee for any developmental activities within forest lands.

The Bill proposes several drastic changes to the Act under the garb of promoting afforestation and meeting the country’s carbon targets. The Act will no longer apply to some forest lands (such as deemed forests and community forests) which are functional forests as per the dictionary meaning of the term, but not officially recorded as forests. With the Bill, the Act will apply only to lands notified as a forest under the Indian Forest Act, 1927, or those that have been officially recorded as a forest on or after October 25, 1980. The Bill, however, claims that it clarifies “the scope of applicability of the Act upon various lands so as to remove ambiguities and bring clarity”.

The Bill proposes to also exempt forest land that is situated within 100 km of the Line of Control or Line of Actual Control “for construction of strategic linear project of national importance and concerning national security” from the purview of the Act. It also provides for the establishment of zoos, safaris and eco-tourism facilities in forest areas other than protected areas, which was not specified earlier in the Act.

This specific amendment goes against the February 2023 order of the Supreme Court (which it gave while dealing with alleged illegal logging and construction in tiger reserves and the establishment of a tiger safari in the buffer area of Corbett Tiger Reserve in Uttarakhand), said Sarvadaman Oberoi, a legal activist and environmentalist from Gurgaon. In this order, the apex court restrained construction within core areas in tiger reserves, national parks and wildlife sanctuaries.

In April 2022, Haryana chief minister Manohar Lal Khattar announced plans for a zoo safari in 10,000 acres in the Aravalli range in the Gurugram and Nuh districts of India’s National Capital Region. Construction that will be undertaken as part of the Aravalli safari project will result in “a lot of unnecessary real estate development that will destroy the native ecosystem of the Aravallis by clearing of trees, undergrowth, vegetation, grasses and other such niche habitats used by the resident wildlife”, the Aravalli Bachao Citizens Movement said in the suggestions it submitted to the Union government regarding the Bill.

“Allowing zoos and safaris within the scope of non-forest activities [as the Bill proposes to do] may disproportionately commercialize forests and wildlife without due consideration to the rights of forest dependent people, wildlife and ecosystem services,” said Oberoi. “The cumulative impact of such establishments including buildings, access roads, power transmission lines, vehicular movement, light and noise pollution etc has significant impact and fragments an otherwise intact forest and have immense impact on species conservation. There is no justification for such non-forestry activities to be excluded from the restrictions that are fundamental to FCA.”

Many changes brought on by the Bill will impact tribal communities and their livelihoods in several ways.

“Loss of homes, incomes, jobs, and socio-ecological futures are certainly going to happen with the repurposing of these lands,” Kanchi Kohli, legal researcher at the New Delhi-based Centre for Policy Research, had told The Wire in April this year.

Many including ecologists, activists, conservationists, retired civil servants and concerned citizens had raised concerns regarding these changes. Most concerns submitted to the JPC, however, were not addressed in the report tabled by the JPC on July 20 in the Parliament; the Committee – which received more than 1,300 submissions with objections and recommendations to the Bill – cleared it without any changes despite inadequate justifications, as The Wire reported in a special story. On July 26, the Lok Sabha passed the Bill in the monsoon session of the Parliament, amidst protests by the Opposition about the violence in Manipur.

“To balance social, economic, environmental progress”

On August 2, Union environment minister Bhupender Yadav presented the Bill – which now renames the Forest Conservation Act 1980 as the “Van (Sanrakshan Evam Samvardhan) Adhiniyam, 1980” – in the Rajya Sabha. The Forest Conservation Amendment Bill is being introduced to bring changes on how to increase green cover along with balancing social, economic, and environmental progress, Yadav said, while presenting the Bill. The updated Act will not be in conflict with the Tribal Rights Act and will instead strengthen tribal communities, he insisted. If people in tribal belts need some land for government facilities, they will not have to come to Delhi to ask for it, development will go to their homes, he said.

Another issue is that of India’s security, he added. Roads and land in areas near the border currently need permission for clearance. India also has to develop its agroforestry (including medicinal plants and timber) which this Bill will enable; it will help tribal communities by permitting them to grow such trees, Yadav said.

Sharachchandra Lele, a Distinguished Fellow at the Ashoka Trust for Research in the Environment and Ecology who studies aspects including environmental policy and governance, termed the Bill as “green-gutting”, in a commentary for Indian Express.

“Greenwashing refers to actions that claim to provide positive environmental benefits but don’t achieve much. With the Forest (Conservation) Amendment Bill 2023, the government is going one step further and indulging in “green-gutting” — using pro-environment language while actually undermining regulations.”

No opposition to debate

No opposition MPs were present on the floor when the Bill was discussed. Hence, no dissent was tabled against the bill during the legislative process. Many, including experts and citizens, expressed dismay at this.

“When the opportunity to debate the Forest (Conservation) Bill 2023 arose in the Rajya Sabha, the opposition leaders chose to boycott the proceeding, neglecting their parliamentary responsibility and showing a priority for political dominance rather than public welfare…Regrettably, this will likely be remembered as the bleakest day in the Indian environmental law, leaving the people of India feeling profoundly betrayed by the opposition MPs,” tweeted Debadityo Sinha, Senior Resident Fellow and Lead of the Climate and Ecosystems team at the Vidhi Centre for Legal Policy.

“Parliamentary proceedings play a crucial role in law-making by serving as the primary record for legislative intent and major concerns related to a Bill,” he also tweeted. “This serves as a fundamental ‘reference point’ for future interpretations and amendments. As a result, it has a profound impact on shaping the course of legislation.”

“It has been extremely disheartening to see the government go ahead with this ecologically destructive bill despite receiving so many letters and emails from conservationists, ecologists, ex civil servants, tribal, forest and citizen groups from across the country,” Neelam Ahluwalia, Founder Member of the Aravalli Bachao Citizens Movement, told The Wire. “Urban and rural citizens are extremely disappointed and feel a huge sense of betrayal from the members of parliament of the opposition parties who instead of opposing this regressive bill in the Lok Sabha and Rajya Sabha chose to boycott the parliament. They have failed in their duty as our elected leaders to protect India’s forests, biodiversity, wildlife, air quality, water security, rights of tribal communities and the future of our youth in this time of extreme climate crisis.”

Though they supported the Bill overall, some members – including V. Vijaysai Reddy of YSRCP and G.K. Vasan of the Tamil Maanila Congress (Moopanar) – raised concerns in the Rajya Sabha on August 2. The Sikkim Democratic Front’s Hishey Lachungpa said that public utility lands have been crucial for the tribal population of Sikkim and many of these people live along the borders of the country. “The new amendment should be inclusive of providing forest rights of these Sikkimese tribal populations which in no way will cause deforestation [but] maintain ecological balance and strengthen our border civilian population,” he said. Regarding defence infrastructure along border areas, sacred lakes and pilgrimage sites should be avoided, he said. “Apprehensions are arising that biodiversity may be affected in pursuit of the new forest amendment act…biodiversity and natural treasures should be safeguarded and protected.”

Biju Janata Dal’s Prashant Nanda from Odisha raised questions about the dilution of protection of deemed forest areas and if the new changes would affect the categories of land notified as forest land or waiting to be notified. He also noted that compensatory afforestation conducted in another place does not offer the same ecosystem services such as water and clean air as the natural forest, according to DTE.

‘Collective decision to boycott’: Jairam Ramesh

In a tweet on August 3, Jairam Ramesh, former Union environment minister and a member of the main opposition party, the Indian National Congress, “clarified” the Opposition’s stand on the issue:

“The decision to boycott was a collevtive [sic] decision of 26 INDIA parties because our legitimate demand for a statement by PM on Manipur followed by a discussion is being refused daily and the Leader of Opposition is simply not allowed to speak,” Ramesh wrote.

Going against standard procedure, the Bill was referred to a Joint Parliamentary Committee and not the usual Standing Parliamentary Committee (Science and Technology, Environment and Forests), currently headed by former environment minister and Congress leader Jairam Ramesh. Ramesh had objected to this. He reiterated this in his tweet too, stating that “this was a complete mockery of the legislative process”.

“I have spoken repeatedly against the amendments and will continue to do so,” he tweeted. “But it should not be forgotten that the battles we are fighting are across a very wide political canvas. At times, a legitimate and principled stand on a larger issue can have consequences on a specific issue.”

“Questions should be asked of this government and even other parties that played ball and rubber-stamped this insidious Bill,” he said. “It will be a long struggle for the environment and securing the rights of adivasis and forest dwellers, and there should be no doubt where the Opposition stands on this issue.”

In a tweet on August 2, Ramesh had said that “both the substance of the amendments” and the manner in which they were “bulldozed through in Parliament reflect the mindset of the Modi Government, and the vast gap that exists between its global talk and domestic walk on the environment, forests and the rights of adivasis and other forest-dwelling communities”.

With the clearing of the Bill by the Rajya Sabha on August 2, all that now stands in the way of the Bill being enacted as law under the Forest Conservation Act, 1980, is the President’s Assent.