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Forest (Conservation) Amendment Bill, 2023

Context: The Forest (Conservation) Amendment Bill, 2023 has been introduced in the Lok Sabha.

Key Highlights: Forest Conservation Amendment Bill 2023

  • It seeks to amend the Forest (Conservation) Act, 1980.
  • Another important objective of the bill is to remove any ambiguity in the Supreme Court’s judgement in TN GodavarmanThirumulpad vs. Union of India Case (1996).

TN Godavarman Thirumulpad vs. Union of India

  • In this case, the court directed that “forests” will not only include forest as understood in the dictionary sense, but also any area recorded as forest in the government record irrespective of the ownership.
  • Exemption categories: It exempts the following forest lands from obtaining prior forest clearance:
    • Forest lands within a distance of 100 km along international borders or Line of Control to be used for construction of strategic linear project.
    • Forests situated alongside a rail line or a public road maintained by the government
    • Tree plantations on private lands that are not categorised as forests.
  • Exemption Aim:
    • Fast track strategic and security-related projects of national importance
    • Provide access to small establishments, habitations on public roads and Railways.
    • Encourage plantation on non-forest land.
  • Preservation: It proposes to insert a preamble in the Act for preserving forests, their biodiversity and tackling climate change challenges.
  • Afforestation: It provides for terms and conditions including the condition of planting trees to compensate for felling of trees undertaken on the lands.
  • Wildlife conservation: It seeks to include more activities for the cause of conservation of forest and wildlife into the array of forestry activities.
  • Uniformity: It aims to bring uniformity in the applicability of the provisions of the Act with respect to government and private entities.
  • Conditions for non-forest purpose activities: It also empowers the Union Government to specify conditions subject to which any survey, such as, reconnaissance, prospecting, investigation or exploration including seismic survey, shall not be treated as non-forest purpose.
  • Approval for diversion of forest land: It stipulates a two-stage approval process of “in principle” and “final approval” to be granted by the Central government for diversion of the forest land for non-forestry uses.

Criticism of the Bill

  • Circumvent SC judgment: It is an attempt to dilute the implications of the SC judgement in TN Godavarman case and free up certain categories of forests from the purview of the Act.
  • Violation of Forest Rights Act: All the proposed exemptions directly violate Forest Rights Act, 2006.
  • Diversion for commercial purpose: The bill limits the application of Forest Conservation Act to ensure diversion of forests for use by public and private sector and advance the agenda for ‘ease of businesses.
  • Violate rights: The bill also violates the Panchayat Act and constitutional provisions for the STs and other traditional forest dwellers.
  • Promotes deforestation: The bill also attempts to redefine forests to promote private plantations that can lead to massive deforestation and environmental degradation.

 Way Forward

  • The Bill seeks to broaden the horizons of the 1980 Act, keeping in view India’s aim to increase forest cover for creation of a carbon sink of additional 2.5-3.0 billion tons of CO2 equivalent by 2030.
  • This can be achieved through planting trees on private land and the current laws pose an impediment to encouraging private landowners to grow more trees.
  • But it is also important equally to safeguard the interest of traditional forest dwellers and check any over-exploitation of forest resources by the private entities.

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