On August 4, 2023, the Indian Parliament opened up vast tracts of India’s forest for ease-of-doing-business. The 8th amendment to the Forest Conservation Act (FCA) of 1980, changes the name of the Act to Van (Samrakshana evam Samvardhan) Adhiniyam ie Forest (Conservation and Augmentation) Act, amidst fears that it is likely to open up almost 20 to 25 percent of India’s remaining forests to corporate plunder.
The new forest act overturns the T N Godavarman vs Union of India’s judgement of 1996 that expanded the meaning of forests to any piece of land with forest-like characteristics e.g.sacred groves, community forests, revenue forest land, aka ‘deemed forest’, and opens them up for for non-forest commercial use such as zoos, safaris, parks, ecotourism projects and agro forestry plantations. The bill also provides a blanket exemption within 100 kilometres of national borders and up to 10 hectares in non-border areas for defence related projects. The amendment also removes the checks and balances of the FCA including forest clearance permissions and the informed consent of the local community.
According to reports the forest areas that stand to be affected include, about 40% of the Aravalli range and 95% of the Niyamgiri hill range of Odisha, home of the Dongoria Kondh particularly vulnerable tribal group (PVTG). In 2013 the Dongoria Kondhs had won a historic battle in the Supreme Court of India, in the Odisha mining corporation vs Ministry of environment and forest case, when the court recognised their cultural, religious, and spiritual rights over Vedanta company’s claim to exploit the hills for bauxite. Incidentally, under the current provision of the Act, the whole of Nagaland and its forests fall within 100 km of the international (Myanmar) boundary giving the Centre the arbitrary power for diversion.
Bhupendra Yadav, the minister of Environment, Forests and Climate Change (MOEFCC) has defended his controversial actions in Parliament and through articles in select media by citing national security from left wing extremists in deep forests and the threat from our neighbours on borders where “warfare has undergone a paradigm shift”.
The Odisha government was the first off the block to take advantage of the new ease-of-doing-business in forest and shot off letters to district officials underlining that industry requests to divert forest land for non-forestry purposes now ought to conform with the amended Forest Act and that ‘deemed forests’ as a category would cease to exist. “The amended Act clearly specifies and defines forest. The concept of deemed forest is now removed,” says an August 11 letter by Satyabrata Sahu, Additional Chief Secretary, Forest and Environment Department, Odisha. The order was withdrawn a few days later for further clarifications.
However, Sikkim, Mizoram, Tripura and Himachal Pradesh have registered their opposition to the exemption of no forest clearance required for security related infrastructure within 100 km of international borders. At least four village councils in Nagaland have taken a pledge to oppose the act as it challenges the “very essence of traditional customary and indigenous ownership-rights of the people over their land and forest” as guaranteed by Article 371A of the Constitution of India.
The amended Forest Act together with the amended Biodiversity Bill passed in the same week, undermine the Forest Rights Act of 2006 which guarantees the rights of tribals and other traditional forest dwellers. The Biodiversity Amendment bill overturned the Divya Pharmacy vs Union of India judgement of 2018 that mandated that even Indian companies were to take permission from state biodiversity boards and share their revenue with the local communities. Now private players don’t need any such permission marking the end of community rights over forests, forest produce and traditional knowledge.
Meanwhile, even as the country recovers from unprecedented heatwaves it is coping with full-blown back-to-back disasters in Assam, Himachal Pradesh, Uttarakhand, Punjab,following record breaking rainfall causing floods, landslides, claiming lives, livelihoods and causing rampant destruction of property and infrastructure. It is easy to attribute these disasters to climate change but it would be foolish to underplay the role of deforestation and the so-called development initiatives of the government that include six-lane highways, bumper-to-bumper dam building activity and a free hand to local governments to expand their unplanned cities.
Finally, the value of old forests must not be minimised by promises of forest restoration. No amount of “augmentation” or replantation, afforestation or reforestation can compensate for the biodiversity and climate ramifications of the loss of old forests. Forest, lest we forget, is the mother of the river.
Shailendra Yashwant is an independent environmental photojournalist and climate communications consultant