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What Greenlighting the Forest (Conservation) Amendment Bill 2023 Means for India

If the law intended to keep forests safe from public & private exploitation, this is the legislative death of it.

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As the Forest Conservation (Amendment) Bill of 2023 has now been passed during the Monsoon session of the parliament, it's important to talk about an eye-catching number in this important item of legislation– 100 km.

What it does is threaten to remove the forest land "within a distance of one hundred kilometers along international borders or Line of Control or Line of Actual Control" from the ambit of protection under The Forest Conservation Act. The land may now be used for the construction of "strategic linear projects of national importance and concerning national security." This effectively means the government has a free hand to build or allow projects in what used to be 'protected forests'.

In exchange, the bill offers a possible direction by the Central government for the compensatory "planting of trees”. The breadth of this exemption – a license to divert forest to other uses– is staggering.

The manner in which the bill has made its way through the parliament has also occasioned comment. It was placed before a handpicked joint parliamentary committee instead of the Parliamentary Standing Committee on Science, Technology, Environment, and Forests chaired by former Minster for Environment and Forests, Jairam Ramesh.

It was passed by the Lok Sabha with little meaningful discussion on the afternoon of a day when the violence in Manipur dominated the debate and the headlines, the last item before the house was adjourned for the day. If the bill truly served its purported ends, why would it need to be brought in such a distinguished way?

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Significant Forest Cover Maybe Under Threat

Within a hundred kilometers of the Indian border, lie thousands of hectares of environmentally invaluable pristine forest including in the ecologically sensitive Himalayas, and trans-Himalayan region.

There are entire states which fall within 100 km of a border such as Tripura, Mizoram, Nagaland, Sikkim, and Meghalaya. Much of the Northeast would fall within such an imaginary line as would the wildernesses of Himachal Pradesh, Uttarakhand, and Jammu and Kashmir.

If the law intended to keep the forests safe from public and private exploitation, then this is the legislative death of it.

Together with other exceptions, the government and its private partners would now be empowered to run roads, rails, and pipelines through what were erstwhile forests. There is little wonder that representatives for tribal groups and forest dwellers amongst others have had voiced their opposition.

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How the Bill Turns Back the Clock on Forest Conservation

The other, more significant, structural change brought by the bill is the effective reversal of the Supreme Court’s jurisprudence in TN Godavarman (1996), which expanded the protection of forests by defining them in a fashion that strikes as common sense.

Effectively, the clock on the diversion of forest land is likely to be turned back to a historical position, and a fictional one – that a forest is only that which is recorded as a 'forest' by the government. Equally important is what has been omitted.

An amendment of the Forest Conservation Act, 1980 was an opportunity to reconcile the law with the protections created under the Forest Rights Act, 2006.

That landmark legislation (governed by the Ministry for Tribal Affairs) had protected the time-honoured rights of forest-dwelling Scheduled Tribes to live in and sustainably use forest lands, and to decide valid usage at a local government level.

Sustainability studies globally have shown us that the best management of forest resources is carried out by the people who know the forests best because they live in them, and depend on their continuity. The bureaucrats of Central Delhi do not enjoy that advantage.

Security and National Importance

The shibboleth of national security, of course, carries enough weight to quell all manners of dissent.

Looking at the bill, one would think, India has been operating without border security for decades, instead of some of the most militarised borders on earth. But it is precisely the generality of the language which is alarming.
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‘National Importance’ Argument & Contentions on Introduction of Bill

We know that particularly when it comes to the environment, "national importance” is wide enough to include within its ken mining, refining, ports, and mineral exploration, and "national security” to include the health of the Sensex.

Last year’s seemingly minor amendments to the Environmental Impact Assessment law on the same grounds had already streamlined and centralised control over strategic projects, thus, lowering barriers.

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The alacrity with which the government jumps to tree planting (very much not afforestation), as a compensatory mechanism for deforestation is indicative of the ease with which it can be carried out.

Only in an absurdist comedy could planting trees in Haryana compensate for the feeling of primeval old-growth rainforest on the Nicobar Islands. But to the bean counters, any tree is a tree, and its existence anywhere is sufficient to balance the books. As a consequence, tree cover in India is depicted to have risen while dense forests have receded.

The “forests” that constitute India’s increase in forest cover are tree plantations and orchards. These are ecologically much less significant – mostly monocultures which do not host the wide range of life that a diverse, living forest actually does. Nor do they sequester carbon as efficiently.

This kind of accounting is disingenuous – it discounts the truly valuable and irreplaceable resource and equates it with what is easy to do and commercially viable, and then dresses it up as "conservation”.
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This monsoon season, the real and dramatic dangers of the Anthropocene have been visited upon us. Dramatic floods have ravaged North India, causing particular damage in the hill states, and horrific wildfires and heatwaves are raging across the world.

India’s forest laws need revision, but the Forest Conservation (Amendment) Bill pending in Parliament is a dangerous and retrograde step, as a chorus of expert voices has already warned.

It cuts a broad swathe – a hundred kilometers wide – through the protections built up by the courts over decades and returns forest law to its colonial roots.

(Satyajit Sarna is a lawyer and writer based in New Delhi. This is an opinion piece and the views expressed above are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for the same.)

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