From UPSC perspective, the following things are important :
Prelims level : Forest (Conservation) Act, 1980
Mains level : Issues with forest land diversion
The Ministry for Environment, Forests and Climate Change (MoEFCC) has published proposed amendments to the Forest Conservation Act, 1980.
The Forest (Conservation) Act, 1980
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.
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.
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.
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.
- 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.
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.
Positives with 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.