Amended Forest Act may open the door for biodiversity destruction

India has lost 3 lakh ha of forests for developmental projects in the past 15 years
Last Updated : 27 August 2023, 19:21 IST
Last Updated : 27 August 2023, 19:21 IST

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The Forest Conservation Act of 1980 barred the diversion of forests for non-forestry purposes by the state governments without permission from the Centre.

The FCA was further strengthened by the Supreme Court intervention, with the imposition of the definition of ‘forests’ equal to the dictionary meaning while dealing with the writ petition 202/1995, bringing relief against the destruction of forests by putting breaks against the encroachment of forests or exploitation, sawmills closer to the forests, mining, etc.

Despite such restrictions, India has lost 3 lakh ha of forests for developmental projects in the past 15 years, excluding the forests lost to encroachers, the Forest Rights Act, 2006 (rehabilitation of tribal and traditional forest dwellers), etc.

The preamble of the 2023 amendment to the FCA looks rosy, as it talks of achieving national net-zero emissions by 2070; creating a carbon sink of an additional 2.5 to 3 billion tonnes of CO2 by 2030; increasing the forest cover to one-third of the national land area; conservation, management, and restoration of forests; and maintaining ecological security, etc.

The original Act has been amended by adding new provisions such as:

1. The category of lands covered under the FCA

(a) Forest areas declared as per IFA, 1927, or any other Act as so

(b) Forest areas other than reserve forests (RFs) recorded as forests in any of the government records, including local bodies, as of October 25, 1980, provided that this provision shall not apply to such forest land which has been put from forestry use to non-forestry purposes on or before December 12, 1996, by the order of any of the authorities.

This provision of the applicability of the Act excludes the forests of the dictionary meaning forced on by the Supreme Court, like the vast areas neither declared as forests nor recorded as forests in the Northeast regions, Himalayas, Eastern Ghats, Western Ghats, Vindhyas, coastal regions, etc.

The NE regions, Vindhyas, and EGs with tribals were declared Schedule Areas for the benefit of the Schedule Tribes in 1996, with power to the grama sabhas to govern the conservation, protection, and utilisation of usufructs in those forest areas, and they have a right to say in mining and development projects.

Further, it strips the rights of tribals and opens the door for exploration, which amounts to destruction of the existing forests, dislocation of tribals and wildlife, and destruction of biodiversity, contrary to the objectives quoted in the preamble of this amendment. It is said that about 28% of the existing forests will be opened for non-forestry purposes.

For example, in Karnataka, the ‘kaans’ (patches of semi-evergreen forests rich in biodiversity close to rural habitats in Shivamogga and North Kannada dists) and some sholas with open grasslands—ridges of the Western Ghats and wastelands with tree growth in river valleys—will be opened for plunder and occupation.

2. The categories of lands not covered under the FCA

(a) Forests along the railways and highways, up to a maximum size of 0.10 hectare in each case.

 (b) Trees, tree plantations, etc. other than RFs and other forests

(c) Such forest lands:

(i) As is situated within a distance of 100 km along international borders, LOC or LAC is proposed to be used for the construction of strategic linear projects of national importance and concerning national security.

(ii) Up to 10 ha proposed to be used for construction involving national security.

(iii) For the construction of defence-related projects or a camp, etc., up to 5 ha

This exclusion opens the existing forests in the ecologically very sensitive zones in the Himalayas along the international border for development for a distance of 100 km. The Himalayas are geologically, physiographically, seismographically, and meteorologically sensitive and should not be opened for development; the area is already witnessing tragedies due to global warming and climate change.

3. Projects that shall not be treated as having a non-forest purpose are:

(i) Establishment of zoos and safaris referred to in the Wildlife (Protection) Act, 1972, owned by the government or any authority, in forest areas other than protected areas

(ii) Eco-tourism facilities included in the forest working plan, wildlife management plan, tiger conservation plan, or working scheme of that area

(iii) Any other like purposes, which the central government may, by order, specify.

(iv) The central government may, by order, specify the terms and conditions subject to which any survey, such as reconnaissance, prospecting, investigation, or exploration, including seismic surveys, shall not be treated as having a non-forest purpose.

These provisions make way for the opening of zoos, safaris, and ecotourism establishments not only in forests but also in private forests, contrary to the provisions of the WLPA, 1972. The eco-sensitive zones around protected areas (PAs) and in WGs will also be open for eco-tourism and vandalism. If we look back, the GOI seized all the scheduled animals from the circuses under the SPCA in the 1990s and closed all minor zoos run by the government all over India in 2002 to streamline wildlife management in ex-situ conservation. Does this amendment not look contrary to what we stood for in wildlife conservation in the past?

In a nutshell, this amendment has diluted FCA’s grip against deforestation and opened Pandora’s box for overexploitation, which affects wildlife habitats and ruins the efforts made for wildlife conservation through projects like ‘Project Tiger’ and ‘Project Elephant’ since 1973. It would also lead to enhanced human-animal conflict and contribute to global warming and climate change. It deserves to be reviewed in the interest of wildlife and future generations.

(The writer is a former Indian Forest Service officer and an author)

Published 27 August 2023, 19:21 IST

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