After cashing in on the coastline by diluting the Coastal Regulation Zone, the Union government is now about to do the same thing with forests. On October 2, it released a consultation paper on amending the flagship Forest Conservation Act (FCA), 1980. Prima facie, the amendments seek to incorporate changes in India’s ‘ecological, social, and environmental regimes’ over the last 40 years. But a closer reading reveals that they also facilitate private plantations and the extraction of oil and natural gas from forests. The fear is that this will lead to vast stretches bordering forests becoming market commodities as well as tradable assets. States have been told to respond to the consultation paper in 15 days and the document is open to public comment till October 17.
The road to hell is paved with good intentions. The amendments seek to rectify the complications caused by the Supreme Court judgment dated December 12, 1996, in the T N Godavarman Thirumulpad versus Union of India and Others case. Until this case, provisions of the FCA applied only to the forests notified under the Indian Forest Act, 1927 or any other local law, and to those managed by the forest department. But after the judgment, all areas that conformed to the ‘dictionary’ meaning of ‘forest’ were ordered to be also considered as forests.
Since identification of such land is subjective and arbitrary to some extent, the consultation paper says it leads to the tendency to keep most of the private lands devoid of vegetation. The win-win solution it proposes is to allow extensive plantation in all possible available lands outside the government forests which will also meet India’s nationally determined contributions under the Paris Agreement to create a carbon sink expansion of additional (cumulative) 2.5–3 billion tonnes through additional forest and tree cover by 2030.
To ease the grievances of individuals whose lands fall in state-specific private forests acts or within the purview of the dictionary meaning of forest, the ministry has proposed to allow them the right to construct structures for bona fide purposes, including forest protection measures and residential units up to an area of 250 sq m as one-time relaxation.
The consultation paper also proposes to facilitate new technologies such as extended-reach drilling (ERD) for extraction of oil and natural gas found deep beneath the forest land by drilling holes from outside the forest areas. The paper suggests that this will not impact the soil or aquifer that supports the forest.
If the intentions of the government are honourable, why is the amendment sought to be rammed through like the farm laws? Fifteen days is too little time to analyse the issue and draft a considered response to the consultation paper. Translations of the consultation paper have not been provided, as is required for a democratic approach. The paper also makes no mention of existing laws such as the Forest Rights Act and the Biodiversity Act, which are crucial to any discussion on forests.
Anyway, the prospect of legalising logging at the edge of the forest is fraught with the danger of misuse. As it is, sandalwood is smuggled out of forests in large quantities. Finally, commercial tree plantations are much poorer than natural forests when it comes to storing carbon. With these amendments, the environment ministry claims that it aims to unlock land for infrastructure development and plantations, both of which are high on economic priorities.
The presumption is that private land, once released from the requirement of prior forest clearances, will incentivise plantation-based carbon sinks. In reality, these lands could well become market commodities and tradable assets both for private parties to sell, and government to acquire on behalf of private parties. And the unseemly haste to push commercial forestry only justifies the fears that the government is facilitating the takeover of forest land by corporates.
There are misgiving on the infrastructure side too. The requirements of government agencies like the NHAI and railways are to be prioritised. It assumes that land once acquired by these agencies should be allowed for unencumbered use. The paper also asks whether the use of forest land for strategic and security projects of national importance should be exempted from the need to obtain prior approval from the Central government, as doing this will allow states to permit diversion of forest land for strategic and security projects that are to be completed in a given time frame.
It must be mentioned that in March 2019, the same ministry had circulated a draft amendment to the Indian Forest Act, 1927. Under its terms, forest staff could shoot anyone in the name of forest protection with little threat of criminal action. They could even terminate the forest rights of any forest-dwellers by paying them a paltry compensation. Forest officials could also raid and arrest without warrants and confiscate the property of any forest-dweller. If the forest department accused anyone of possessing any illegal objects, the accused would have to prove their innocence, not the accuser. Mercifully, public outcry forced the government to drop the move. It is not as if the previous regime was any different. The way the UPA government removed large chunks of land from the eco-sensitive zone of the Western Ghats was shameful.
Finally, as the consultation paper was released on Gandhi Jayanti, one cannot help quoting him: “The world has enough for everyone’s need but not enough for everyone’s greed.”
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