Forest Bill 2023: Diluting conservation or promoting development

forest bill 2023
Parliament has approved the Forest Bill 2023, eliciting both hope for development and deep concerns among environmental activists.

Forest Bill 2023: Parliament has granted approval to the Forest (Conservation) Amendment Bill 2023, a decision that has raised concerns among environmental activists. Despite the Bill’s initial pro-environment stance, activists argue that it ultimately weakens regulations for forest conservation. Notably, the Forest Amendment Bill has undermined the significance of the 1996 Godavarman order by the Supreme Court, introducing exemptions that further erode the already fragile framework governing forest diversion. This, in turn, could potentially lead to irreversible damage to India’s forests.

The new Forest Bill marks a significant reversal in the protection extended by a previous Supreme Court ruling to unclassified forests that lacked formal notification. Going forward, the term “forest” will exclusively apply to lands officially designated or notified as such under the Indian Forest Act of 1927 or any other relevant legislation. The government’s recognition of forests will now be limited to those documented after 1980.

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A prominent example of unclassified forests is the Aarey colony in Mumbai, where local authorities have been engaged in a contentious debate with residents over the development of a metro project that involves felling trees. While forests like the one in Aarey Colony remain unrecognized, these unclassified forest areas account for approximately 15% of what is considered India’s total forest cover—almost 120,000 square kilometres out of the overall forest area of 775,288 square kilometres.

States like Nagaland, Meghalaya, Manipur, and others face the reality that up to 90% of their forest cover remains unclassified, leaving these vital ecosystems at the mercy of governmental decisions. A considerable portion of these unclassified forests serves as crucial habitats for wildlife and local communities. Throughout the nation, there are pockets of land cherished by communities who understand their ecological importance and eagerly anticipate official recognition. A striking illustration is the sacred forest of Mangar Bani in Gurugram, acknowledged as “gair mumkin pahad.”

Aim of Forest Bill 2023

While the broader objective of the Bill is to liberate forest land for developmental pursuits, it aligns with India’s climate goals, which require maintaining a minimum of 33% of the landmass as forest or green cover. The present coverage stands at 22%. A previous landmark Supreme Court ruling established that any land meeting the dictionary definition of a forest should be safeguarded, and any land previously documented as a forest in official records will retain its forest status. Essentially, this made it more challenging to exploit such lands for development.

Under the new provisions, the Bill exempts land within 100 kilometres of India’s borders from conservation regulations and allows for the establishment of zoos, safaris, and eco-tourism facilities in forested areas. This exemption encompasses a significant expanse of approximately 15,000 kilometres along India’s border, including the entire northeastern region and a substantial portion of the Himalayas—both critical ecosystems. Additionally, linear projects like railways and highways are no longer required to obtain community consent under the Environment Ministry’s purview.

While state governments initially wielded greater authority over their respective forest territories, the introduction of the Forest Conservation Act in 1980 aimed to curb the liberal allocation of forest land by state authorities, particularly for non-forest activities like cultivation. However, as forests were placed in the concurrent list, the central government assumed a more prominent role in forest-related decisions. Given the generations of care provided by local communities, it is imperative that their input takes precedence in forest-related matters.

For example, substantial stretches of scrubland in Western Rajasthan, serving as a vital habitat for the critically endangered Great Indian Bustard, have been effectively managed by local communities. Their perspectives must hold sway. Although the current law mandates the consent of the local Gram Sabha—comprising members of tribal and indigenous communities—for clearing forested land, this requirement no longer applies if the land in question loses its forest classification due to being unclassified. The Chairperson of the National Commission for Scheduled Tribes voiced opposition to this undermining of Adivasi rights but resigned last month, purportedly due to pressure.

The Bill has faced substantial criticism, with the latest dissenting voices emerging from environmental activists in Punjab, expressing fears about the law’s potential to severely diminish forest cover. Despite the government’s resounding majority, it is imperative to halt the rampant destruction of greenery, as failure to do so would hinder climate change mitigation. The broader public must rally against reckless development and demand the authority to responsibly govern environments and forests.