The concerned citizens have drafted a short letter that outlines some of the main issues with the bill. The full text of the letter is given below:
July 17, 2023
ToShri Bhupendra Yadav
Union Cabinet Minister for Environment, Forest & Climate Change
Members of the Lok Sabha and Rajya Sabha
Subject: Serious concerns regarding the Forest Conservation Amendment Bill 2023
We are writing as ecologists and conservationists who have spent decades working to research and conserve India’s ecosystems and the valuable services they provide.
Each of us is deeply concerned about the state of India’s ecological security, given the current data in the public domain. Only 21% of India’s land area has forests, and only 12.37% of this is intact natural forest (very dense and moderately dense forest). Further, while the Forest Survey of India has shown a marginal increase in forest cover of 2261 sq.km during the last two years, it has been proven by domain experts that this hides a pattern of deforestation in some parts of the country. For instance, the most biodiversity-rich part of the country, the north-eastern hill states, show a net decline of 3199 sq.km of forest cover from 2009-2019. Further, field surveys show that much of even this marginal increase in forest cover can be ascribed to commercial plantations, forest fragments and urban parks, that in no way can replace the ecological functions performed by intact natural forest.
Given this already fragile state of India’s forests, and based on our diverse experiences from the ground, we have serious concerns regarding the Forest Conservation Amendment Bill, 2023, that has recently passed through the Joint Parliamentary Committee. In fact one could argue that this is not just an amendment but an entirely new Act. Numerous organisations have provided submissions during the consultation phase and their concerns seem to have been ignored. We are writing to highlight again the many issues in the Bill and to urge MPs and ministers to reconsider this move. We strongly believe that the present Forest (Conservation) Act, 1980 along with the judgment in the Supreme Court order in WP 202/9 together provide a strong basis for the protection of natural ecosystems, and require better and effective implementation.
We outline our concerns with the bill below:
1) Reclassification of forest areas
The new section 1A sub-section 1 adds confusion regarding the classification of forests in the country, stating that the FCA will only apply to areas recorded as forest in government records, as on or after 25 October, 1980. This has raised legitimate fears that the amendment will invalidate the Supreme Court’s 1996 judgment in T.N. Godavarman vs Union of India in which the court interpreted the meaning of forest as its dictionary definition, expanding the purview of the FCA.
If these areas are declassified it will mean that thousands of square kilometers of forests will lose protection overnight. In fact the Forest Survey of India’s latest report, India State of Forest Report 2021, states that while 5,16,630 sq km of the forests are within Recorded Forest Areas, 1,97,159 sq km of forests lie outside Recorded Forest Areas. This implies that out of a total of 7,13,789 sq km of forests of India identified by FSI, 1,97,159 sq km of forests (27.62% of our forests) will lose all protection.
Through much of our work we have seen that these forests are extremely biodiverse and are vital habitats for thousands of species. Areas such as the Aravalli forests which will lose protection are a vital green lung for northern India and provide refuge to hundreds of species of birds, reptiles, mammals and amphibians, apart from serving critical hydrological and climatic modulation for the entire Delhi NCR. Innumerable examples can be given of the ecological necessity of maintaining at least 23% of India’s land area under forests, as enshrined in the Directive Principles of State Policy.
2) Exemptions for projects near border areas and for security purposes
The amendment will remove the necessity of forest clearances for security-related infrastructure within 100km of international borders. These areas are home to the most ecologically important ecosystems in the country, including the forests of North East India, the high altitude deserts of Ladakh and Spiti, the alpine forests of Uttarakhand and Himachal Pradesh, and the open scrub and desert ecosystems of West India. Other security-related infrastructure in different parts of the country is also exempted from forest clearances, which means that every part of the country could be impacted by military infrastructure. However, the need for fast-tracking should not imply the complete elimination of the need for appraisal.
While ensuring the military security of the country is a priority, it should not come at the cost of losing our ecological security. These natural ecosystems play a crucial role in buffering against increasingly unpredictable weather patterns caused by climate change. Their loss will result in greater displacement and heightened internal security risks. The recent floods in the Western Himalayas have shown that areas heavily disturbed and fragmented by infrastructure development have experienced the most destruction of property due to landslides.
3) Exemptions for zoos, safari parks and ecotourism activities
As should be obvious, a zoo or safari park and a forest cannot be equated. One is a thriving ecosystem, interconnected in thousands of ways, many of which we are still only learning about. The other, a zoo, can be a place for ex-situ conservation or education but can never be a replacement for the former. The aim should be to construct world leading conservation centers in addition to giving our natural ecosystems the protection they need. Eco-tourism is also an important ancillary activity to generate employment, but exempting it from clearances will mean that tourism will overtake nature. There is enough evidence that ecotourism projects often encourage large-scale construction, which is detrimental to natural ecosystems and biodiversity.
Section 2 of the amendment also states that the Central government may exempt clearance for ‘any other purposes, which the Central Government may, by order, specify.’ This could open the door to a whole host of ancillary activities on forest land that will no longer require clearances.
4) Riding Roughshod on people
Exempting such a large number of projects from the clearance process will mean that forest dwelling people will no longer be consulted. This is an extremely important way that forest dwelling people are given a voice. The Scheduled Tribes And Other Traditional Forest Dwellers (Recognition Of Forest Rights) Act, 2006, has made it mandatory to get free, prior and informed consent of local communities through their gram sabhas, a right that they have won over years of struggle. It is likely that this proposed amendment to FCA will ride roughshod over the rights of forest-dwelling tribals and other people. As has been pointed out before in some representations, it is also not clear as to whether there has been any consultation with the National Commission on Scheduled Tribes by the Union Government under Article 338 of the Constitution since it mandates that the The Union and every State Government shall consult the Commission on all major policy matters affecting Scheduled Tribes.
Many of the proposed amendments in the Bill [Section 1A (1)(b) and Section 1A (2)] adversely affect the protection accorded to Scheduled Tribes (“STs”) and other Traditional Forest Dwellers (“OTFDs”) under the FRA because if the land falls outside the scope of the FCA, it effectively eliminates the requirement of obtaining consent from the Gram Sabha for diversion of that land.
As the devastating impacts of climate change and environmental degradation become clearer, highlighted in the recent floods across north India, this is the time for the government to reaffirm its commitment to protecting the country’s immense biodiversity. Doing so will require strengthening forest protection laws and the rights of indigenous peoples to own and manage their lands. This amendment will only seek to hasten the decline of India’s natural forests. For these reasons, and those described above, we urge you to vote against the amendment when it is tabled in Parliament.