DEFORESTATION has emerged as one of the key factors that intensified the damage caused by heavy rain in Himachal Pradesh in recent days. Forests are natural ecosystems which provide varied eco-services for human benefit and survival. The National Forest Policy, 1988, and various statutes are in place to protect, manage and conserve forests in India. The Forest Conservation Act, 1980, was enacted to tackle varied pressures that were detrimental to this natural resource. This Act was applicable to lands notified and recorded as reserved and protected forests.
The Supreme Court, vide its order in TN Godavarman Thirumulpad versus Union of India and others (December 1996), extended the purview of the Act to all areas falling under the dictionary meaning of the term ‘forest’, irrespective of ownership and control. Deemed forests, as these were designated, are those that are notified under the Indian Forest Act, 1927, or state laws; are recorded in working plans or other forest records; and find mention in government records, including revenue ones. The Forest Conservation Act has played a crucial role in forest conservation. The deforestation rate, which was about 1.5 lakh hectares per year, came down to 38,000 hectares after 1980.
The Forest (Conservation) Amendment Bill, 2023, which has been examined by a joint parliamentary committee, dilutes some clauses of the Forest Conservation Act, 1980. It is contemplating exempting lands that were recorded as forests, but not notified, before the enactment of the Act in 1980. This is bound to lead to deforestation in the forests that are not a part of the notified forests. As per the India State of Forest Report, 2021, 15 per cent of the total forests in the country fall in this category. In another provision, the Bill legalises the transfer of any forest land for non-forest use, pending permission with the Government of India since December 12, 1996.
Forests that are awaiting notification under the 1927 Act might be sacrificed under these amendments. Many natural forests in the Aravallis in the north and those in the Western and Eastern Ghats, in the North-East and other states that are neither recorded as forests in revenue records nor notified as such under any forest Act would get de-reserved under the Bill.
Further, forest lands that are situated along a rail line or public road maintained by the government, provide access to a habitation or a rail and roadside amenity can be de-reserved up to a maximum of 0.1 hectare in each case, as per the Bill. These areas form a part of the Forest Survey of India biannual forest assessment and the diversion of 0.1 hectare in each case would reduce the forest cover appreciably. Contrarily, if already notified, these areas can’t be touched under the prevailing Act or amended Bill, bringing dichotomy in two similar situations.
Allowing zoos in forest areas without attracting the provision of de-reservation rather than near cities, where required, is a regressive step when forests are required and managed for free-moving wildlife. The exploration of minerals allowed now, without forest diversion, is regressive when it requires the use of heavy machinery that would cause degradation.
The amendments lift many restrictions for the diversion of forest land by loosely using the terms security, border-related infrastructure and public utility purposes.
The Bill commits to bringing one-third of the land area under forests, creating a carbon sink of an additional 2.5 to 3 billion tonnes of carbon dioxide equivalent by 2030 and undertaking ecologically balanced sustainable development to achieve net-zero emissions by 2070. These commitments of the government would get compromised through the implementation regime that would come up due to the proposed Bill. It is a fact that carbon neutrality cannot be brought by easing forest diversion and allowing increased felling of trees. The forest cover of the country is about 24 per cent and is envisioned to be raised to 33 per cent by 2030. But can such a deregulated regime assist in achieving this and the targeted carbon sink and net-zero emissions?
These exemptions are also contrary to the National Forest Policy, 1988, the Forest Conservation Act, 1980, and the Directive Principles of State Policy to safeguard forests and wildlife. The emphasis of the amendments in the proposed Bill is more towards unlocking forest land for commercial purposes, even undermining the livelihoods and other rights of the communities dependent on forests. It is bound to trigger deforestation and a fragmentation of the existing forests, inflicting irreparable damage to biodiversity and, hence, to the eco-services that the forests provide.
The crux of the problem is that there is no definition of the term ‘forest’ in the legislative or executive framework of the country. Efforts made at the national level and by delegating this authority to the states have not yielded any result. The 1927 Act does not define a ‘forest’ but classifies these as reserved or protected forests, based on the process followed for their notification. State revenue departments consider an area as a forest if it is recorded as such in the revenue record, with trees or otherwise. Many notified forests under the 1927 Act do not find a place in this record. The Forest Survey of India defines and classifies forests based on the existing forest cover as very dense (above 70 per cent), moderately dense (40-70 per cent), open (10-40 per cent) and scrub (less than 10 per cent). These may or may not be notified and may or may not find mention in revenue records.
Consequently, there is a need to define the term ‘forest’ so that it is applicable uniformly to all areas based on land use, canopy cover/crown density, height of trees, nature of species and the prevalent biodiversity that the forests are known for. Natural grasslands, pastures, deserts, water bodies, wetlands, geomorphic features and glaciers in their natural habitat, working as a natural ecosystem, can also be included. This definition can be notified under the 1927 Act, adopted in other Acts and rules wherever required and applied uniformly. This would prevent playing with forest resources every now and then. Such a definition would bridge the contradictions, bring uniformity and help in the conservation of forests by utilising their socio-economic and environmental potential for tackling the menace of climatic change and other environmental and natural hazards.
These issues should be considered by the government and lawmakers so that the amended Bill contains measures that remove the shortcomings so as to boost forest conservation and assist in meeting the commitments made by the country.
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