The Lok Sabha on Wednesday passed a contentious amendment to the Forest Conservation Act which exempts several categories of land from the provisions of the law.

The Forest Conservation Amendment Bill received the approval of the Lower House six days after it was cleared, without a change, by a parliamentary joint committee.

What does the Bill entail and why has sparked widespread concern?

What does the law say?

The Forest Conservation Act of 1980 prohibits state governments from diverting any forest land for non-forest purposes, except with the permission of the Centre. Anyone who seeks to oppose a state government order in this regard can file an appeal before the National Green Tribunal.

The Bill, passed on Wednesday, amends the law to exclude some forest land from its ambit. It inserts a preamble, which notes that India’s Nationality Determined Contribution targets “envisage creating a carbon sink of additional 2.5 to 3.0 billion tons of CO2 equivalent by 2030”.

Nationally Determined Contributions are self-defined climate pledges made by countries around the world under the Paris Agreement of 2015.

The Statement of Objects and Reasons for the Bill also said there was a need to fast-track strategic and security-related projects of national importance, particularly in international border areas and areas affected by left-wing extremism.

Once the amended law comes into force, the following categories of forest land will no longer enjoy legal protection:

  • Land, up to 0.10 hectares, alongside a rail track or a public road.
  • Land within 100 kilometres of the International Border, Line of Control or Line of Actual Control. Such land must be proposed to be used for the “construction of strategic linear project of national importance and concerning national security”.
  • Up to 10 hectares of land that is proposed to be used for setting up security-related infrastructure.
  • Up to five hectares of land in an area affected by left-wing extremism. This land needs to be earmarked to set up a defence-related project, a camp for paramilitary forces or a public utility project, as may be specified by the Centre.

All this land can be exempted from the ambit of the law subject to the condition that trees are planted elsewhere to make up for the felling of the trees in these areas. The central government can frame guidelines to spell out the ways in which this compensatory planting takes place.

Union Environment Minister Bhupender Yadav, speaking about the Bill in Parliament on Wednesday, said that India had not yet realised the goal of creating an additional carbon sink of 2.5 to 3.0 billion tons of CO2 equivalent.

“For this, it is necessary to focus on agroforestry and increase tree cover, so that biodiversity can be strengthened,” he added.

What do the critics say?

Several environmentalists have alleged that the Bill is merely a ruse to open up forest land for commercial exploitation. They have contended that terms such as “public utility specified by central government” are vague and leave scope for misuse.

Former government officials have also expressed concern about exempting up to 100 km of forest land that may be used for strategic purposes in border areas.

Former Principal Chief Conservator of Forests BK Singh said that this would encompass the entire North East region of India and the majority of the Himalayan region, both of which are ecologically sensitive and home to several wildlife species.

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On July 12, a group of over 100 former civil servants had urged Parliament not to clear the amendment, saying that it was “replete with flaws” and “totally misleading”.

They said that the amendments were likely meant to strengthen “the tendency of liberally giving away forest land for non-forest purposes”.

“Procedurally, the bill should have been referred to the Parliamentary Committee on science, technology, environment and forests, instead of being referred to a Select Committee, all the members of which, except one, belong to the ruling party, making the examination partisan and unsatisfactory,” the former civil servants had said.