Listen to this article:
New Delhi: New rules notified by the Union government will allow private developers to cut down forests without getting the consent of forest dwellers, a change that violates a provision of the Forest Rights Act.
The Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change (MoEFCC) notified the Forest Conservation Rules, 2022 under the Forest Conservation Act on June 28 to replace the earlier rules, notified in 2003.
The rules will simplify and shorten the process of diverting forest land for infrastructure and development projects and make land availability for compensatory afforestation easier, as reports have noted.
Now, Newslaundry reports on another important change that the rules will effect. They will shift the responsibility for obtaining consent from Scheduled Tribes and other forest-dwelling communities before forests are cut onto state governments – which the Union government was earlier mandated to do.
Under the earlier rules, the Union government was first required to verify the consent of forest-dwelling communities before forest land is approved to be handed over to private projects. Now, it can first approve the handover of the forest and collect payment for compensatory afforestation. The state government then has to settle the forest rights of the communities and rehabilitate them.
According to the rules, the Union government after receiving the compliance report for a project may accord the final approval under section 2 of the Forest Conservation Act. It will then communicate the decision to the state government or a Union Territory (UT) administration.
The state government or UT administration will then have to ensure that the project fulfils and complies with provisions of all other Acts and rules, including the Forest Rights Act – meaning settling forest rights and rehabilitation. Then, it should issue the order for diversion, assignment of lease or de-reservation of forest land.
This change violates the Forest Rights Act, under which governments should seek free, prior and informed consent of forest dwellers before allowing a project on their traditional lands, according to Newslaundry. The Supreme Court’s verdict in the Vedanta judgement also backs this process up, the report said.
The tribal affairs ministry, which oversees the Forest Rights Act, advised in December 2015 that the consent of forest-dwelling communities should be taken into account before the final approval is issued, saying that it would “inform and enrich the decision-making process” of the MoEFCC.
“It is also important that the completion of recognition of rights be done prior to [final] clearance, to preclude the possible destruction/alteration of existing evidence in support of claims under FRA,” the tribal affairs ministry said, according to Newslaundry.
If the gram sabha is approached after the final approval was granted, it will render the gram sabha’s role irrelevant and forest clearance will be fait accompli, the ministry had argued.
Sharachchandra Lele, a distinguished fellow at the Ashoka Trust for Research in Ecology and the Environment, agreed.
“This change only makes things worse by making the forest clearance almost a fait accompli… We cannot imagine a collector doing due diligence on FRA rights after the forest clearance has already been approved by the Union government,” she told Newslaundry.
The Union government has also moved to amend three laws related to the protection of the environment – the Environment (Protection) Act, 1986, Water (Prevention and Control of Pollution) Act, 1974 and Air (Prevention and Control of Pollution) Act, 1981. The amendments will “decriminalise” offences to “weed out fear of imprisonment for simple violations”. Offenders will no longer face the threat of imprisonment but will be faced with larger monetary fines. Legal and policy experts believe that the amendments will encourage a pollute-and-pay attitude.
Other rule changes
The Forest Conservation Rules, 2022 also prescribes timeframes within which different projects must be reviewed by a project screening committee. All non-mining projects that propose to divert between 5-40 hectares must be reviewed within 60 days, while mining projects within 75 days. Non-mining projects seeking to divert between 40 and 100 hectares should be reviewed within 75 days and mining projects within 90 days. The committee should review projects diverting more than 100 hectares of forest land within 120 days for non-mining projects and 150 days for mining projects.
The rules also say that in case the forest land to be diverted is in a hilly or mountainous state or a UT that has a forest cover of more than two-thirds of its geographical area, the compensatory afforestation may be taken up in another state or UT which has forest cover less than 20% of its total geographical area. This will also apply to projects in other states or UTs which have a forest cover of more than one-third of their geographical area – if the concerned state governments or UT administrations consent.