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This is with reference to the Consultation Paper on proposed amendments in Forest Conservation Act 1980(F.No. FC-11/61/2021-FC) as uploaded on the environment ministry’s website on 02.10.2021 seeking public comments/consultation. We hereby find that the proposed amendments go against the spirit of Forest Conservation guaranteed in the Forest Act,1980. Additionally, we find the process of drafting the amendments without the consultation of the Ministry of Tribal Affairs, State Governments and without compliance to National Forest Policy 1988, unacceptable and hence we demand that the amendments are abandoned. The Forest Conservation Act is the principal legislation that regulates deforestation in the country and prevents the felling of forests for any ‘non-forestry’ use without prior clearance by the Union government. We the Concerned Citizen of India reject the proposed amendments on the following grounds:
National Forest Policy,1988 targets to achieve one-third area (33% of the country) under forest and tree plantation for better living conditions. However, the current forest cover of India stands at 24.56% which is far from satisfactory. At these times, we need stringent forest conservation laws. Diluting existing forest laws will lead to increased deforestation that will impact the communities and wildlife dependent on it, in addition to contributing to carbon emissions and increased frequency of natural disasters.
The amendments limit the coverage of the Supreme Court’s decision that the meaning of forest under FCA would include any area recorded as forest in govt. records, regardless of ownership.
The proposed amendments are also in violation of the Hon’ble Supreme Court’s order dated 12.12.1996 passed in the Writ Petition (Civil) No.202/1995 in the matter of T.N.Godandavarman VS Union of India.
The removal of the Union government’s approval is a step towards the dilution of forest land use protection given by the centre and the states, as it will allow infrastructure projects to come up more easily thus prioritising financial profits and other monetary gains over the conservation of forests and its biodiversity, causing an ecological imbalance.
The amendment has provided no clarity on the scope of terms like “strategic projects of national importance.”
We find the following amendments problematic and would therefore request the Environment Ministry to consider our request for rejecting the following clauses:
Remove the revenue records of non-forest lands under the purview of law after 12.12.96
In the proposed new section 1A, a provision has been added to exempt the application of FCA on forest land that is “used for underground exploration and production of oil and natural gas through Extended Reach Drilling (ERD) originating outside forest land.” The Ministry considers the use of ERD technology quite environment-friendly and as such “should be kept outside the purview of Act”. The said proposal is irrational and unscientific. The above said technology will ultimately result in the destruction of the forest ecosystem, as soil forms the basic part of the ecological balance. Any act involving the destruction of the integrity of the soil will result in irreversible destruction of the ecology. We, therefore suggest that the ERD method is abandoned and oil and natural gas activities are not conducted in forest land.
A new explanation added to Section 2 says that “survey, reconnaissance, prospecting, exploration or investigation” for future activity in the forest will not be classified as a “non-forestry activity”.
A new explanation to Section 2 proposes to exempt plantation of native species of palm and oil-bearing trees from the definition of “non-forest purpose”. We recommend this clause to be removed as Palm oil plantations are known to be destructive for ecology and the environment and this clause makes it easier to set up such plantations.
Amendment to Section 2(iii) of the FCA that has been removed, which earlier required the Union government’s approval before assigning forest lands on lease to any private person/corporation/organisation not owned or controlled by the Union government. This clause allows easier diversion and therefore damaging of forest land and its ecology for private gains, and should be discarded from the proposed amendments.
The proposed Section 2A may empower the central government to provide for state government approval for projects on forest land for “strategic” importance. No clarity has been provided for the scope of the term “strategic”, giving rise to fears that developmental projects may be proposed in forest land and awarded the term “strategic” to get approval without following any regulations or norms. The term should be clearly defined, in addition to having strict environmental protection regulations if such projects are being initiated.
The proposed amendment inserts a new Section 2B, which will allow the central government to delineate forest areas where conversion to specific non-forest uses would not be permitted for a fixed period of time. The delineation would be based on the basis of pre-defined criteria.
Zoos, Safaris should not be considered as forest activity as they are outside/against the biodiversity of the forest and is an animal rights violation.
All the above-proposed amendments make it easier for forest land to be diverted, exploited, and misused for the various non-forest, destructive activities that will have unimaginable consequences on the ecosystem as well as its ripple effects on us. We hope that the Environment Ministry will uphold its obligations towards informed public participation like the commitment to Principle 10 of the Rio Declaration and also the Principles of Natural Justice and Paris Agreement while taking a considered view on the proposed amendments to the Forest Conservation Act 1980. We wonder why no information has been made available regarding Report No. 324 - Status of Forests in India. This consultation paper also fails to include the Ministry of Tribal Affairs who has a major stake in the forest. The proposed amendments will also result in the dilution of the Forest Rights Act, 2006. Under the Forest Rights Act, community rights, Gram Sabha rights, forest management plans are defined and form the protection aspects of the tribal communities. These scenarios are not addressed under the proposed amendments. We believe that the amendments should have added their implication on Biodiversity Act, Forest Rights Act and wetlands which it failed to do so.
We acknowledge and appreciate the work of the Environment Ministry on publishing consultation papers on Amendments on Forest Act,1980. However, we also feel that public consultation time should have been much longer given we are in the midst of a global pandemic and translations should have been provided in all the 22 scheduled languages so that all the stakeholders and communities can share their feedback.