Certain categories of forest land will no longer be legally protected, as proposed by the Forest (Conservation) Amendment Bill, 2023, that the Union government introduced in Lok Sabha on March 29. A need to fast-track strategic and security-related projects was cited as one of the primary reasons to introduce the bill that aims to clarify and amend the Forest Conservation Act, 1980. Experts, however, are sceptical about the move and claim it is an effort to open forest land for commercial purposes.

The Forest Conservation Act provides legislative support for conserving forest land and its resources. Forest land that will not be covered under the provisions of the Act, once the amendments are made, includes forest land alongside a rail track or public road (up to 0.1 hectares), tree plantation or reforestation raised on lands and 100 km along the international border, line of control, or line of the actual control area. The exemption also includes up to 10 hectares of land proposed to be used for the construction of security-related infrastructure. Land proposed to be used for defence projects, paramilitary camps or public utility projects, specified by the central government, and up to five hectares in a left-wing extremism area, will also be exempted from the legal purview of the Forest Conservation Act.

Debadityo Sinha, an ecologist and senior resident fellow with the Vidhi Centre for Legal Policy, said that the country has no official definition of “forest”. Thus, the Supreme Court order, in the TN Godavarman Thirumulpad vs Union of India case of 1996 had offered legal protection to many forests which are not notified. The new amendments will now dilute that protection, he added.

Experts also feel that there are several vague terms like “public utility specified by central government” in the Bill, which are unclear and leave scope for misuse.

The Bill makes a case for the amendment by mentioning climate-related goals. It says that it is necessary to broaden the horizon of the Act for mitigating the impact of climate change, achieving the national target of Net Zero emissions, maintaining or enhancing the forest carbon stock, for creating a carbon sink of an additional 2.5 to 3 billion tonnes of CO2 equivalent by 2030 and improving forest-based economic, social and environmental benefits.

Former Principal Chief Conservator of Forest BK Singh pointed out that the 100 kilometres of forest land that may be used for strategic purposes in the border area, encompasses the entire northeast region of India and a majority of the Himalayan region. These areas are sensitive to ecology as well and home to several wildlife species.

He also added that forests are important and provide several ecosystem services, giving the example of the Kodagu district of Karnataka. Spread over 410,075 hectares, the entire district is a forest. In this, a little over a fourth, around 134,615 hectares, is a notified forest. But this does not mean that the remaining forest, which is not notified, is irrelevant to the local ecology. “We have already done enough damage to the forest. It should be stopped now,” he said.

Defining forests

The Forest Conservation Act, 1980, came into existence to check deforestation. But no clear definition of a forest was mentioned in the Act. In the case of TN Godavarman Thirumulpad vs Union of India, the country’s apex court, in 1996, ordered that the forest must be understood according to its dictionary meaning. After the verdict, all forest land mentioned in any government record needed forest clearance from the Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change.

“Land that has been declared or notified as a forest, in accordance with the provisions of the Indian Forest Act, 1927 or under any other law for the time being in force,” comes under the purview of the Act, says the latest Bill. These lands are usually reserved forests, protected forests, etc., explained experts.

In another clause, the Bill says that those areas, mentioned in the government record as forest as on or after October 25, 1980, will still come under the purview of the Act.

Sinha explained that is the area of concern. With the amendments, all those forest lands which do not fall in the reserved area but are available in government records before 1980 will not come under the purview of the Act. This diverts away from the Supreme Court’s 1996 verdict which had ensured every forest mentioned in government records gets legal protection against deforestation.

Bypassing standing committee

The Bill is now referred to a Joint Parliamentary Committee. However, former Environment Minister Jairam Ramesh, chairman of the Rajya Sabha’s Parliamentary Standing Committee on Science & Technology, Environment, Forest and Climate Change, has raised a concern. In a letter on March 29, written to Jagdeep Dhankar, Chairman of the Rajya Sabha, on March 29, Jairam Ramesh said, “Standing Committees are primarily to examine Bills. But they can do so only if Bills are allowed to be referred to them for scrutiny. By referring the Forest (Conservation) Amendment Bills, 2023 to a Joint Committee, the Union government is deliberately by-passing the Standing Committee, which would have subjected the legislation to detailed examination with the full participation of all stakeholders,” wrote Jairam Ramesh, Chairman of Parliamentary Standing Committee on Science & Technology, Environment, Forest and Climate Change.

There are also serious problems with the list of members from the Rajya Sabha proposed by the government for the joint committee as no member of the opposition figures in the list, making it one-sided, he alleged.

Ramesh wrote another letter on April 6 in which he accused the Rajya Sabha chairman of allowing “subversion” of the standing committee’s basic function. His second letter within a week came in a response to Ranjit Punhani, a secretary in Rajya Sabha Secretariat, who had asked Ramesh to “state the exact premise of his objection”.

Joint and Select Committees on Bills are ad hoc committees appointed for a specific purpose and they cease to exist when they finish the task assigned to them and submit a report. Standing Committees are permanent and regular committees which are constituted from time to time in pursuance of the provisions of an Act of Parliament or Rules of Procedure and Conduct of Business in Lok Sabha.

This article first appeared on Mongabay.