Environmentalists, Himalayan communities sound alarm over Forest (Conservation) Amendment Bill 2023

New Delhi: As the Lok Sabha prepares for a crucial vote on the Forest (Conservation) Amendment Bill 2023 during the ongoing Monsoon session, environmentalists, activists and other stakeholders across the Himalayas are sounding the alarm over the potential ramifications of the Bill in its current form.

Key amendments proposed to The Forest (Conservation) Act (FCA), 1980 include adding a preamble, renaming the Act to ‘Van (Sanrakshan Evam Samvardhan) Adhiniyam’, limiting its applicability to lands recorded as forest in government records, and exempting certain categories of land from its purview.

Conservationists argue that limiting the applicability of the FCA to land recorded as forest in government records would effectively invalidate the Supreme Court’s 1996 judgment in the TN Godavarman case, which said the Act was applicable to land covered under the “dictionary meaning of forests” or “deemed forests” (forests not officially recorded as forests).

The environment ministry says the application of the Act on land covered under dictionary meaning of forests (or deemed forests) has resulted in a “declining tendency in plantations in non-forest lands owing to the apprehension among individuals, organisations and authorities regarding such plantations being considered forests”.

“This misapprehension is becoming a hindrance in enhancing green cover to fulfil the Nationally Determined Contribution targets of creating additional carbon sink of 2.5 to 3 billion tonnes of CO2 equivalent,” it says.

The amended bill also exempts forest land up to 10 hectares for constructing security-related infrastructure and the area falling within 100 km of international borders, Line of Control (LoC) and Line of Actual Control (LAC) for “strategic and security-related projects of national importance”. Besides, the environment ministry proposes to exempt forest land up to 5 hectares in Left Wing Extremism affected areas from the purview of the FCA for the construction of public utility projects such as schools, water facilities and telecommunication services, to address the challenges faced by the residents of these forested regions.

States, including Himachal Pradesh, Nagaland, Sikkim, Tripura, Mizoram and Assam, told a 31-member Joint Parliamentary Committee that reviewed the Bill that such a step could potentially encompass large areas of their forest land and also affect the tribals and other traditional forest dwelling communities.

Environmentalists say areas in the hilly region close to the international borders and LAC/LoC are known for their geological instability and are prone to natural disasters such as heavy rainfall, landslides, flash floods and cloud bursts. “Unregulated and largescale diversion of forests for non-forest activities” will exacerbate the risks to communities and ecosystems, they argue. They also say exemption of forest lands up to 0.10 hectares alongside roads and rail lines for public amenities from the requirement of forest clearances could lead to unchecked deforestation and ecological degradation in sensitive areas.

Experts also raise questions about the Bill’s impact on the rights of indigenous communities and forest-dependent tribes. The proposed amendments could contradict the Scheduled Tribes and Other Traditional Forest Dwellers (Recognition of Forest Rights) Act, 2006, and the Panchayats (Extension to The Scheduled Areas) Act, 1996, which were enacted to protect the rights of these marginalised communities.

Takpa Tenzin, president of Spiti Civil Society in Himachal Pradesh, said, “The NoC for 10 ha land along the border areas is exempted for strategic linear projects such as transmission lines for hydropower, tunnels, and roads. In Himachal Pradesh, communities living near the border regions are protected by the FRA and PESA Act. “There is ambiguity as to how strategic projects are defined in the Bill, and what about the concerns of people? There were so many disasters in recent times in Himachal Pradesh where people have not come out from the shock, forget recovering… And we are opening these floodgates for more destruction?” he said.

Renowned environmentalist Ravi Chopra, former chairman of the Supreme Court-appointed committee on the Char Dham project, cautioned, “Bills like these come at the behest of making strategic or public utility projects ‘better.’ We have time and again observed that be it railways or roads or electricity transmission… They require tunnels, and tunnels require blasting. And blasts cause cracks in the mountains. The government will tell you it is being done scientifically, but it is not. The job is carried out by a local contractor who just wants to finish the job and move to the next one. This is why our towns like Joshimath sank.” Mayalmit Lepcha, General Secretary of Affected Citizens of Teesta, said, “The FCA bill poses a great threat to Sikkim. Our land is already overwhelmed by 13 mega-dams on prominent rivers like the Teesta and 38 pharma companies. Currently, only indigenous people are protesting against the hydro project because this project impacts our lives completely. The tribals and also the Buddhists worship natural entities such as lakes, forests, and rivers. A cultural threat will be followed after the approval of projects like these.” Takpa Tenzin, President of Spiti Civil Society in Himachal Pradesh, said, “We are opening these floodgates for more destruction… There were so many disasters in recent times in Himachal Pradesh where people have not come out from the shock, forget recovering.” According to the report tabled by the JPC in Parliament on Thursday, the environment ministry submitted the proposed exemptions along the international borders are not blanket exemptions. Instead, they are intended to apply only to specific projects of strategic importance concerning national security.

Also, these exemptions will be subject to certain terms and conditions, including the payment of compensatory levies and compensation for trees. It will be binding on the states to ensure their compliance when considering such projects within the 100-kilometer zone, the ministry said.

An analysis of past approvals for defence projects revealed that over the last 8 years, a total area of 80,408 hectares was diverted, with only 2,480 hectares of forest land, accounting for a mere 3 percent of the total diverted area, being allocated for defence projects, including roads.

“It is important to note that out of the total 19,305 hectares of forest area diverted for roads in the bordering States of the country during the same 8-year period, only 3.5 percent of it was allocated for defense road projects,” the ministry said.

The Forest (Conservation) Amendment Bill, 2023 was introduced in the Lok Sabha on March 29 and was referred to the joint committee of both Houses of Parliament on the same day.

The JPC has approved all proposed amendments to the principal Act. In its 201-page report tabled on Thursday, the JPC stated that it received 1,309 memoranda, including comments from experts, state governments, departments, public sector undertakings, ministries, and defense forces, as well as four notes of dissent from opposition members of the committee.