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Environment

Union Govt Makes U-Turn on Enlisting Private Entities to Amend Indian Forest Act

In its current form, the Act vests power over India’s forests more with states than with the Centre.

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Bengaluru: The environment ministry has reversed its stance on inviting private entities to amend the Indian Forest Act 1927, The Morning Context has reported.

The ministry had courted controversy when, on June 22, 2021, then environment minister Prakash Javadekar invited consultancy organisations to express interest in amending the Act.

In its current form, the Act vests power over India’s forests more with states than with the Centre. This is one reason why many Indian states have state-level forest laws of their own, to administer and manage their forests according to their needs and realities.

Given the environment ministry’s decisions until June, to destroy forest tracts around the country to accommodate new airports, railway lines, highways, mining projects, etc., lawyer Ritwick Dutta interpreted the ministry’s idea as a way to wrest control of forests away from states, towards the Centre.

Dutta had also written that the ministry’s call focused on reducing builders’ compliance burden and extracting more resources from forests – but that it said nothing about protecting diversity or improving India’s odds against climate change.

(The organisation that Ritwick Dutta and Rahul Choudhary founded, LIFE, recently won the celebrated Right Livelihood Award for 2021. Read Manoj Misra’s profile of the organisation’s work here.)

On October 20, Akshay Deshmane reported for The Morning Context that a technical officer in the environment ministry had recorded its U-turn on the matter in an August 9 note. Deshmane also referred to “undisclosed official documents and conversations with officials” to state that the ministry had decided to drop the idea.

In July, Prime Minister Narendra Modi had overhauled the Union cabinet, replacing – among others – the science, health and environment ministers. On the last count, Modi replaced Javadekar, who had been the environment minister from May 2014 to July 2016 and then from May 2019 to July 2021, with Bhupender Yadav.

Dutta and other experts have spoken out about sparing the Indian Forest Act from amendments to prevent the Centre from gaining more control over forested areas that presently benefit from more local maintenance and conservation efforts.

But it isn’t a perfect Act. As environmental lawyer Arpitha Kodiveri told The Morning Context, it still “vests wide discretionary power in the state” and doesn’t intend to include forest-dwellers in decisions involving the use and demarcation of forests.

Based on his conversations with ministry officials, Deshmane concluded that the environment ministry still intends to amend the law – just probably internally, instead of enlisting private entities, and later.