Diluting for development, proposed Forest Act amendment estranged from environment

152

Speaking on the World Elephant Day event at the Ministry of Environment, Forests and Climate Change (MoEF&CC) on August 12 this year, its Director General Forests Subhash Chandra had said, “Forest service life can be divided into pre-Godavarman and post-Godavarman phases.”

Echoing his sentiment, Environment Minister Bhupender Yadav — who is a renowned lawyer and has a good understanding of environmental laws — too had said, “Conservation mechanism needs to be understood in light of pre-Godavarman and post-Godavarman.”

‘Godavarman’ that they referred to the famous Supreme Court judgment from December 1996 in the matter of T.N. Godavarman Thirumulpad versus Union of India and others, which brought in a sea change in the manner in which the Forest Departments across India carried out conservation and treated all that was termed as ‘forest’.

Till that historic judgement 25 years ago, governments — states / UTs / Central — applied provisions of the Forest Conservation Act, 1980 only to those forests that are notified under the Indian Forest Act, 1927 or any other local law and was necessarily under the control of the Forest Department. After what now is known as the ‘Godavarman judgment’, the provisions of the Forest Conservation Act, 1980 were applied to areas which are recorded as ‘forest’ in any government record irrespective of ownership, recognition, and classification, including areas notified as forest under any law; all areas conform to the ‘dictionary’ meaning of ‘forest’ and all areas which are identified as ‘forest’ by the expert committee constituted in pursuance of the December 12, 1996 order of the Supreme Court and the affidavit.

Similarly, the states too applied the provisions to any other areas identified by the Supreme Court’s expert committee or lands covered by ‘forest’ as per dictionary meaning. The same was also presumed to have applied for plantations in non-forests lands.

Twenty-five years later, the MoEF&CC is all set to change this. The MoEF&CC put out a ‘Consultation Paper on Proposed amendments in the Forest (Conservation) Act, 1980’ in public domain on Monday. Not all happy with what is being viewed as ‘tinkering’ with the essence of conservation.

Exemption, conservation, and punishment:

If we are to believe the Ministry officials, three things are driving these proposals for amendment — exemption, conservation, and punishment.

“India imports a massive quantity of timber as on date. Annually 30 lakh cubic metres of timber is imported today. How do we reduce that? Our import bill for wood and wood derivatives is to the tune of Rs 45,000 crore approximately,” a top official from the MoEF&CC told IANS.

“Till the time, we don’t encourage ‘trees’ outside forests. People are not sure whether or not they would be able to grow trees that they can sell,” he said.

For instance, a sizable plot of land — say 5 Ha — which is left untouched for two decades for several reasons, will witness a thick vegetation and undergrowth on that land. Irrespective of the ownership of the land and registered land use, this is deemed as forest and provisions of Forest (Conservation) Act are applicable to this land.

“This has stopped people from going ahead with plantations. People are afraid of leaving their land unused as they feel it would restrict the right of an individual to use his/her own land for any non-forestry activity,” the official said, adding, “This has further led to the development of a tendency to keep most of the private lands devoid of vegetation even if the land has scope for planting activities.”

Same is applicable to government-owned land. The Paper cited “strong resentment in the Ministry of Railways, Ministry of Road, Transport & Highways, etc., for interpretation of the scope of applicability of the Act over the right of way (RoW) of railways, highways, etc.”

“A landholding agency (Rail, NHAI, PWD, etc.,) is required to take approval under the Act as well as pay stipulated compensatory levies such as Net Present Value (NPV), Compensatory Afforestation (CA), etc., for use of such land which was originally been acquired for non-forest purposes. The Ministry is considering now to exempt such lands acquired before 25.10.1980 from the purview of the Act.”

The MoEF&CC has been regularly dealing with proposals which have sought such exemptions and, if we are to believe the Ministry officials, the number of such proposals has been only increasing. However, the ministry has not kept any record of the number of proposals and the quantum of such land is sought to be diverted for non-forest use.

Conservation?

The Paper pointed out how the pace of achievement vis-a-vis 33 per cent forest and tree cover is merely 24.56 per cent against 33 per cent as the desired target, and said, there is a practical limitation to increase forest cover. “Therefore, more and more non-forest lands, including land under private ownership, are required to be brought under the tree cover for ecological, economic and environmental benefits.”

Under the Paris Agreement 2015, India needs to create a carbon sink of additional 2.5 to 3.0 billion tons of CO2 equivalent by 2030. With no scope of increase in area under the Forest Department that is designated as forests, the government is looking at plantations and afforestation in all possible land outside of forests. And for that, the government needs to assure people that the provisions of the Forest Conservation Act will not be applicable there.

Incidentally, there is an ongoing case in the Madras High Court wherein the court had on September 22 sought the Tamil Nadu government’s response to a PIL that wants removal of Tamil Nadu Preservation of Private Forests (Amendment) Act of 2011 as it “permits those who had purchased private forests without prior sale approval from an environmental committee to obtain post facto sanction from it.”

The proposed amendments includes whether projects related to the development of infrastructure along the International Border areas should be exempted from obtaining prior approval of Central Government under the provision of the Act and allow the states to permit non-forest use of forest land for implementation of such strategic and security projects that are to be completed in a given time frame.

Development or environment?

It is the Right of Way (RoW) of railways here, but in general for any infrastructure project has been a debatable issue. The Ministry has proposed these amendments to the Forest Act for what it called as “accelerated integration of conservation and development.”

Manoj Mishra, a former Indian Forest Service officer from Madhya Pradesh and now a river conservationist, said, “It is not about integrating development and environment. It is about establishing that environment protection is the development.”

Referring to the proposed amendments that seek to bring in clarity about what can and cannot be called as forest, the retired forester said, “Rather than the definition, it is the deficiencies in the system. These actions are an attempt to hide the institutional deficiencies. Because of institutional deficiencies, the decision making has gone for a six. Also, the decision making takes so much time, people find loopholes not to obey (laws).”

The consultation paper mentions the proposed provision of offences under Section 2 of the Forest Act, 1980 to be made punishable with simple imprisonment for a period, which may extend to one year and the offence shall be cognizable and non-bailable. This is a huge change as compared to a mere 15 days’ punishment earlier. But at the same time, there are apprehensions about its implementation as the Ministry’s track record of punishing violators even for 15 days has not been above par.

Mishra, however, welcomed the fact that the Ministry has chosen to put out a consultation paper before bringing out the draft legislation.

A similar sentiment was voiced by founder of Legal Initiative for Forests and Environment (LIFE) and environment lawyer Ritwick Dutta earlier. Speaking with IANS on Monday, Dutta had termed it as a “good step” that the Ministry has at least asked for views at the pre-legislative stage rather than presenting with a draft law. “They are asking for comments on essential ideas,” he had said, adding, “We are hoping there would be at least three steps of consultation. The pre-legislative stage, the draft act, the Bill in the Parliament. Then, it can also go to the Select Committee of the Parliament and then for Member of Parliaments to raise objections.”

The Consultation Paper was posted online on Monday for inviting comments/suggestions on proposed amendments in the Forest (Conservation) Act, 1980 within 15 days.

However, an expert, not ready to be quoted by name, pointed out the sheer pointlessness in the entire process as she said, “As far as we know, the Cabinet has approved these proposed amendments in March 2021. This all looks facade. The Ministry and the Centre are set to do what they have charted out already, regardless of the levels and numbers of consultations.”–IANS

niv/dpb