New Delhi: The Forest Conservation Amendment Bill, 2023 was sent to a select committee of parliament in the Lok Sabha on Wednesday, triggering a protest by Congress MP Jairam Ramesh who said that the Bill should have ideally been sent to the parliamentary standing committee on science, technology, environment and forest that he chairs. The Bill was introduced on Wednesday and sent to a select committee in a few hours without much discussion.
Ramesh alleged that the standing committee was bypassed at the prime minister’s behest. “There’s a most sinister move in LS today to refer the Bill to drastically amend Forest Conservation Act, 1980 to Select Committee. It should have gone to Standing Committee on Environment & Forests. Problem for PM is I chair it, while Select Comm will be chaired by his chosen MP,” he tweeted.
Later, the Congress Rajya Sabha MP also wrote to Upper House chairman Jagdeep Dhankar protesting against the move. He said that he was writing not only on behalf of his party but the entire opposition to point out that the Bill “falls fairly and squarely in the domain the Standing Committee on Science & Technology, Environment, Forests & Climate Change”.
“This is one of the eight Committees of the Rajya Sabha and that is why I seek your urgent intervention to prevent its complete emasculation,” he said, addressing Dhankar.
“Standing Committees are primarily to examine Bills. But they can do so only if Bills are allowed to be referred to them for scrutiny. By referring the Forest (Conservation) Amendment Bill,2023 to a Joint Committee, the Union Government is deliberately by-passing the Standing Committee which would have subjected the legislation to detailed examination with the full participation of all stakeholders,” he said, alleging that the reason for such a move was because the Union government didn’t want the Bill to be scrutinised by him and he chairs the Standing Committee.
He added that most of the members of the Standing Committee belong to the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party, and that as the chairman of the committee, he has managed its affairs “in a most democratic and non-partisan manner”, at times also allowing his personal views “to take a back-seat when there is a larger consensus in a different direction”.
He alleged that the list of members from the Rajya Sabha proposed for the select committee has “serious problems”, as no opposition members have been included in it. Ramesh termed the proposed Joint Committee as “hopelessly one-sided”, and urged the Rajya Sabha chairman to “that proper Parliamentary rules, procedures, conventions and traditions will be followed and that the Standing Committee on Science & Technology, Environment, Forests & Climate Change will get to examine the Forest (Conservation) Amendment Bill, 2023”.
The select committee has three members from opposition parties – Trinamool Congress’s Jawhar Sircar, Biju Janata Dal’s Prashanta Nanda and Sikkim Democratic Front’s Hishey Lachungpa – but no members of the Congress or any other prominent national party.
‘Dilute impact of SC order’
Ever since the Forest (Conservation) Amendment Bill, 2023 that seeks to redefine forests was floated, activists and conservation experts have feared that it will dilute the impact of a 1996 Supreme Court order defining forests.
In fact, a stated objective of the Bill is to remove ambiguities around the Supreme Court’s 1996 judgement in TN Godavarman Thirumulpad vs Union of India and others, which defined “forests” as all areas that are recorded as “forests” in government records irrespective of the ownership. The definition, the Bill argues, has impeded development or infrastructure work in areas which have been put to non-forestry use despite the fact that those tracts of land are recorded as “forests” in government records.
The Bill also exempts some forest land from necessary prior permission before use for construction projects of “national importance”. Those forest tracts which fall within 100 kilometres of international borders have also been exempted from seeking clearance permission as a matter of “national security”. Similarly, strip forests along a rail line or a public road, or tree plantations on private land, have also not been categorised as “forests” in the Bill.
The Bill also argues that such “development work” has become necessary in view of India’s target of Net Zero Emissions by 2070 and other climate change mitigation measures, as the Union government seeks to increase the forest cover for the creation of a carbon sink of additional 2.5 to 3.0 billion tonnes of carbon dioxide by 2030.
However, those who have worked in the fields of conservation and forest rights believe that the Bill has only been brought to dilute the provisions of forest protection in India.
“The Bill systematically dilutes the provisions of ‘Deemed Forest’ in Supreme Court judgment in TN Godavarman, where any land which is recorded as forest in govt record required ‘Forest Clearance’. Now the amendment proposes to include only those lands which are recorded as forests on/after 25 October 1980,” tweeted Debadityo Sinha, lead, climate and ecosystems at the Vidhi Centre for Legal Policy.
“This is major exemption and threaten a significant area of forest land in the country, especially because majority of such recorded forest lands were originally transferred to forest dept during abolishment of Zamindari system (in 50s-70s) [sic],” he said.
He added that the Bill’s exemptions “now includes ‘silviculture’, establishment of zoo/safari, ecotourism facilities included in Management Plan; ‘any other like purposes’ ordered/ specified by the Centre”.
Centre for Policy Research’s legal researcher Kanchi Kolhi told the Hindustan Times, “There are two shifts and one gap related to the proposed amendments that are important to understand, especially as they seek to reorganise the four decades of Centre-state interactions through the forest conservation legislation. The first is around unlocking specific lands to accommodate plantations that are now central to achieving global climate targets and domestic compensatory afforestation in lieu of forest loss. Second, broad powers to exempt the requirement of prior conservation-oriented scrutiny for projects of strategic and national importance.”
“What remains an obvious gap, even in the statement and objects of the amendment, is the reconciliation of the forest conservation legislation with the forest rights question, which should have been important especially when almost all proposed amendments will necessarily come to bear on prevailing, pending or recognised forest rights,” she added.
Forest rights activist Tushar Dash believes that the proposed exemptions violate the Forest Rights Act, 2006. “These are in continuation to the several other such exemptions that MoEFCC has granted for making forest diversions easy for government and private agencies…the amendment intends to limit the application of both forest conservation act and forest rights act by taking out large forest areas out of the purview of forest conservation act to ensure diversion of forests for use by public and private sector and advance the agenda for ‘ease of business’,” Dash told the Hindustan Times.
He said that the Bill “violates the forest rights act, Panchayat Act and constitutional provisions for the STs and other traditional forest dwellers”, even as it “attempts to redefine forests to promote private plantations that can lead to massive deforestation and environmental degradation”.