July 26, 2023
The Forest Conservation Amendment Bill 2023 just got passed amidst opposition protests in the Lok Sabha regarding the Manipur issue. The bill received hundreds of objections from stakeholders but was passed unchanged and without any discussion.
The now passed bill amended the Forest Conservation Act, 1980. The 1980 Act was intended to prohibit use of forest land for non-forest purposes (such as mining, infrastructure projects, or agriculture) without prior permission from the government.
The Act was applicable to forests which have been notified by governments through central or state forest laws and ‘deemed forests’. Deemed forests are areas which fit the definition of forest but are not recorded or notified.
The Supreme Court in the Godavarman judgment in December 1996 had broadened the definition of forest to include non-notified forests. From time to time, the SC has directed states to identify and classify these deemed forests.
This leads us to the first key change brought by the amendment. The 1980 act would now be applicable only to forests notified on or after 1980.
The problem? State governments are yet to notify deemed forests.
Read DowntoEarth's coverage here
Another key change is that from now on, the act will not be applicable to forest diverted between 1980-1996 for non-forested uses. This would de-facto change the classification of all such forest lands to non-forest lands.
Changing this classification would mean that govt/ industries using diverted lands could bypass compliances- including restricted tree-felling, compensatory afforestation and most importantly, the Forest Rights Act, 2006.
Rights granted to indigenous forest-dwelling communities also depend on the land being classified as forest land. Previous amendments have also frequently infringed on the rights of FRA tribes.
Lastly and most significantly, the amendments exempt forest land situated within 100 km of international borders and forest land being diverted for security and defence projects from needing a clearance - A move which can adversely affect forests in eco-sensitive areas.
In fact, this is not the only amendment to the FCA in recent years. In June last year, the government passed an amendment which would make the prior consent requirement from local gram sabhas redundant.
Read Newslaundry's coverage here.
Further, through internal documents accessed by LCW, we found that the central government would allow privately owned lands to qualify for compensatory afforestation. This will make granting forest clearances for industries easier.
Read TheHindu's coverage here
Similar amendments have been passed for exempting certain projects from requiring environmental clearance in July last year. Despite significant backlash, such amendments have been passed without consulting necessary stakeholders.
Nearly half of the land conflicts in the LCW database involve forest-lands in some way. This amendment is likely to increase conflict between indigenous communities and the state. To find out more, check out our database at https://landconflictwatch.org/all-conflicts