The author is a first year law student at National Law University Odisha
The Union Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change(MoEF&CC) has proposed new amendments in the Forest Conservation Act,1980, seeking to liberalize forest laws by facilitating private plantation to be able to use their land for non-forestry purposes and extraction of oil and natural gas by drilling holes from outside the forest.
The FCA has been amended two times, 1988 and 1996 in the past. Until December 1996, ‘forests’ were notified under Indian Forest Act,1927. Then the Supreme Court in TN Godavarman Thirumulpad vs Union Of India and ors(1996) expanded the definition of forest to include all areas classified as “forest” in government records as well as the “dictionary” meaning of ‘forest’, irrespective of ownership or classification.
What is the need to bring new amendments?
The ministry says that the current definition of ‘forest’ given by SC is subjective and arbitrary and has led to a lot of conflicting interpretations.This has locked land across the country, which has resulted in resentment from particularly private organizations and individuals. Considering any private area as forest would restrict the right of an individual to utilize his/her land for any non-forestry purpose. Diversion of any such land to non-forestry use requires centre’s approval and compensation levies.
The areas acquired by the Railway Ministry for expansion purposes wherein forests have grown, cannot be utilized now.
What are the amendments about?
All the land acquired before 1980 by the railway and road ministry will be exempted from the act.
For the private land of the individuals and individual organizations that come within the meaning of ‘forest’ as defined by SC in 1996, the amendment proposes a one-time relaxation to allow construction for bona fide non-forestry purposes including residential units, up to 250sq meters. No levies shall be required for use of land for non-forestry purposes during the renewal of a lease, thus not charging double levies.
Strip plantations alongside roads will also be exempted.
Provision for strict guidelines regarding the increasing rate of deforestation and penalties including jail terms for non-compliance are also made in addition to making offences non-bailable.
There were past instances of national security projects being on hold due to the requirement of the central government’s approval. Therefore, defence projects near the international borders will also be exempted for clearance to avoid any further delays and inconvenience.
Oil exploration and natural gas extraction from the forest land will be permitted, from outside the forest area i.e., remotely, and only if technologies like Extended Reach Drilling(ERD) are used, aiming for the least exploitation of forest land.
The proposed amendments have faced much criticism, especially from the environmentalists.
No consultation has so far been done by the ministry with the forest dwellers(largest stakeholders) whose livelihood and rights are most likely to be affected by the amendments.
Concerns have been raised regarding the one-time relaxation in the construction given to private individuals which will cause degradation of forest areas of Aravallis and others.
If the land now classified as ‘deemed forests’ is used for expansion purposes by the railway and road ministry the elephant and tiger corridors will be disturbed. Moreover, according to the statistics, 4% of land in Uttarakhand falls under private forest(private land classified as a forest) which if the amendment is passed will be fully wiped out.
Suspicions are raised regarding the oil drilling techniques proposed, some experts claim that there is no scientific proof available that the ERD technology will save the forests and not harm the aquifers.
India’s aim under the Climate Change Action Plan(CCAP) is to create a carbon sink to lock 2.5-3 billion tonnes of CO2 by 2030 which can be achieved if the plantations are encouraged to be grown in the land of private landowners, to which the amendments pose a serious challenge.
However, it will lead to the unlocking of private lands and ease the process of utilizing the land for developmental purposes. Diversion in the case of certain forests has been completely disallowed. And the delay caused in the sanction of strategic projects of national importance will be avoided.