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Amendments to the Forest Conservation Ac

  Oct 30, 2021

Amendments to the Forest Conservation Act, 1980

Q What is the context  ?

A The Ministry for Environment, Forests and Climate Change (MoEFCC) has published proposed amendments to the Forest Conservation Act, 1980.

Q What are key features of The Forest (Conservation) Act, 1980 ?
A The FCA is the principal legislation that regulates deforestation in the country.

  • It prohibits the felling of forests for any “non-forestry” use without prior clearance by the central government.
  • The clearance process includes seeking consent from local forest rights-holders and from wildlife authorities.
  • The Centre is empowered to reject such requests or allow it with legally binding conditions.
  • In a landmark decision in 1996, the Supreme Court had expanded the coverage of FCA to all areas that satisfied the dictionary definition of a forest; earlier, only lands specifically notified as forests were protected by the enforcement of the FCA.

The FCA is brief legislation with only five sections of which-

  • Section 1 defines the extent of coverage of the law,
  • Section 2 restrictions of activities in forest areas and the rest deals with the creation of advisory committees, powers of rule-making and penalties.

Q Why is the Act being amended now?

  • The current definition of forests has locked land across the country; even private owners cannot utilise their own property for non-forestry purposes.
  • The pressure for forest land diversion has been coming from  Ministries such as Rail and Roads.
  • Under the Act, any diversion of any forest land for any purpose, including assignment of leases, needs prior approval of the Centre.

Q What defines ‘Forest’ under this act?

  • Previously, the Act had applied largely to reserve forests and national parks.
  • In 1996, ruling in T N Godavarman Thirumulpad v Union of India Case, the Supreme Court had expanded the definition and scope of forest land.
  • It would thus include all areas recorded as forest in any government record, irrespective of ownership, recognition and classification.
  • The court also expanded the definition of forests to encompass the “dictionary meaning of forests”.
  • This would mean that a forested patch would automatically become a “deemed forest” even if it is not notified as protected, and irrespective of ownership.
  • The Act would also be applicable over plantations in non-forest land.

Q What are the proposed amendments?

(A) Exemptions for Road and Railways

  • The MoEFCC has proposed that all land acquired by the Railways and Roads Ministries prior to 1980 be exempted from the Act.
  • Once the lands had been acquired for expansion, but subsequently, forests have grown in these areas, and the government is no longer able to use the land for expansion.
  • The Ministries will no longer need clearance for their projects, nor pay compensatory levies to build there.

(B) Relaxation

  • It distinguishes individuals whose lands fall within a state-specific Private Forests Act or comes within the dictionary meaning of forest as specified in the 1996 Supreme Court order.
  • The government proposes to allow the “construction of structures for bona fide purposes’’ including residential units up to 250 sq m as a one-time relaxation.

(C) Defense and other projects

  • Defence projects near international borders will be exempted from forest clearance.
  • Oil and natural gas extraction from forested lands will be permitted, but only if technologies such as Extended Reach Drilling are used.
  • Strip plantations alongside roads that would fall under the Act will be exempted.

Q What are the concerns?

  • Legalizing private ownership of forests: The rules will facilitate corporate ownership.
  • Deforestation: The exemption of forests on private land will lead to the disappearance of large tracts of forests.
  • Fragmentation: Exemption for private residences on private forest will lead to fragmentation of forests, and open areas such as the Aravalli mountains to real estate.
  • Tribal concerns: The amendments do not address what will happen to tribals and forest-dwelling communities over the cleared lands.
  • Threat to wildlife: Exemption for roads and railways on forest land acquired prior to 1980 will be detrimental to forests as well as wildlife – especially elephants, tigers and leopards.

Q What are benefits of the amendment ?

  • It has proposed making forest laws more stringent for notified forests, making offences non-bailable with increased penalties including imprisonment of up to one year.
  • It has disallowed any kind of diversion in certain forests.
  • It has attempt to define and identify forests once and for all — something that has been often ambiguous.