In its climate change mitigation efforts, India has pledged to increase the country's carbon sink by 2.5 to 3 billion tonnes of carbon dioxide equivalent by 2030 through the creation of additional forest and tree cover. This commitment has found a place in the preamble to the Forest (Conservation) Amendment Bill, which was introduced on 29 March in the Lok Sabha and was sent to the newly formed select committee the same day.
The bill proposes to amend the Forest (Conservation) Act, 1980, which governs the diversion of forest tracts for non-forestry purposes. If the bill becomes a law, the preamble will be a new addition to the statute as the 1980 act doesn't have a preamble.
The bill also specifies that the name of the act should change to 'Van (Sanrakshan Evam Samvardhan) Adhiniyam'. However, Opposition parties have objected to the name change, calling it an imposition of Hindi on non-Hindi speaking population of southern and northeastern states.
The report of the parliamentary committee consisting members of both the houses is expected to be tabled in the monsoon session, which is scheduled to begin on 20 July. However, The Hindu, based on the documents it claims to possess, has reported that the committee has endorsed the amendment bill without any changes. At the same time, six out of the 31 members in the committee, belonging to the Congress, Trinamool Congress and Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam, have filed dissent notes.
Restricting the Meaning of 'Forest'
The Supreme Court, in its 1996 judgment in the TN Godavarman Thirumulpad v Union of India had expanded the definition of 'forest' to include any tract that resembles the dictionary meaning of forest and said that the provision of the FCA should apply to it. The amendments, prima facie, seem to revert this judgment and restrict the definition of forest to "the land that has been declared or notified as a forest in accordance with the provisions of the Indian Forest Act, 1927 or under any other law for the time being in force" or the land that "has been recorded in Government record as forest, as on or after the 25th October, 1980."
This change is significant as it opens up vast tracts of land for use for non-forestry purpose without the clearance from the Union government. The FCA makes it mandatory to acquire the permission of the central government before any forest land can be used for non-forest purpose.
Along with excluding land not notified as forest in the government records from the purview of the FCA, it also introduces several concessions for diverting reserved forest tracts for non-forestry purposes.
Forest land situated alongside a rail line or a public road maintained by the Government, which provides access to a habitation, or to a rail, and roadside amenity up to a maximum size of 0.10 hectare.
Forest land situated within a distance of 100 kilometre along international borders or Line of Control or Line of Actual Control, proposed to be used for construction of strategic linear project of national importance and concerning national security.
The bill also states that any survey, such as reconnaissance, prospecting, investigation or exploration including seismic survey, will not be treated as non-forest purpose. This means that the government will be free to carry out operations that may involve drilling and digging in the name of surveys, potentially affecting fragile ecology in dense forests.
Further, the bill exempts establishment of zoos, safaris and eco-tourism facilities from the purview of the FCA.
Do the Proposed Amendments Infringe on Adivasi Rights?
"A large number of communities depend on common land and forests for their livelihoods. The rights of those dependent on nature will get affected by the changes in the law," Manshi Asher, an environmental justice activist and researcher, told The Quint.
The environmental experts express fear that the bill dilutes the rights accorded to Adivasis and other forest dwellers in the Forest Rights Act, 2006.
Environment law and policy researcher Kanchi Kohli told The Quint,
"It would have been good practice if these amendments reconciled the proposed changes with the intent and objectives of the Forest Rights Act, as in many cases both these laws operate in the same space. However, it appears that the central government has prioritised leaving the FRA implementation in the hands of the state government, as is also visible with the 2022 Forest Conservation Rules where the environment ministry has reversed its earlier requirement of gram sabha consent as a necessary condition for forest diversions."
"In effect the FCA will now run parallel to the FRA and it will be the responsibility of the state governments to ensure harmonisation in process and projects," she further stated.
In October 2022, Harsh Chouhan, Chairperson of the National Commission for Scheduled Tribes (NCST), had put forward his objections to the Forest Conservation Rules, 2022 on the grounds that they infringe on the rights of the Adivasis.
“We wrote to the government about the rules, which essentially eliminate the requirement of consent of local tribespeople and forest dwellers for diversion of forest land for other purposes,” he had told The Hindu.
When Chouhan resigned from his post early this month, eight months before his tenure was supposed to end, the Congress alleged that he was forced to resign for his opposition to the dilution of forest laws.
Congress general secretary for communications Jairam Ramesh wrote on Twitter,
"In February 2021, Harsh Chouhan was appointed as Chairperson of the National Commission on Scheduled Tribes (NCST), a Constitutional body. He has been taking – like many activists and I have done – very strong objections to the way forest laws have been diluted in the last two years that hurt the interests of Adivasis. He has confronted the Environment and Forests Ministry boldly. Now he has paid the price for his commitment and courage. He has been forced to resign 8 months before his term ends."
Ramesh had also taken strong objections to the bill being sent to the select committee for deliberation instead of the Standing Committee on Science, Technology, Environment and Forest that he heads. Ramesh had said that the government merely wanted an endorsement for its amendments.
Focus on Climate Commitments
The preamble of the FCA amendment bill foregrounds India's climate change commitments. It mentions the government's target of achieving net-zero emissions by 2070 and creating additional carbon sink of 2.5 to 3.0 billion tonnes of CO2 equivalent by 2030 by increasing the country's forest and tree cover.
This is to be achieved primarily by compensatory afforestation. Whenever forest land is diverted for non-forestry purposes, the user agency is mandated to grow forests over an equivalent area of private land. However, plantations cannot be a substitute for the rich biodiversity of a naturally existing old, dense forest.
"They are setting up this green credit scheme now where anybody – any private enterprise, any government authority – can grow a plantation and earn carbon credits. But plantations cannot make forests so this is just a money-making exercise encroaching on common lands," Asher told The Quint.
"Plantations are mostly of non-native trees or invasive species that grow fast, and which are not suitable for grazing by animals," she further added.
Kohli says that the need to create quick carbon sinks will lead to monoculture plantations.
"The reliance on carbon sinks as a critical mechanisms to meet net zero targets, implies that more and more land will need to be enclosed affecting prevailing rights. It also means more land will need to be quickly brought under plantations, which runs the risk of creating fast growing monoculture plantations. The proposed FCA amendments are designed to facilitate unlocking of land and creating incentives for tree plantations."