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Explained: What is a forest and why is the government amending the Forest (Conservation) Act of 1980?

Arfa Javaid

Of late, the Ministry for Environment, Forests and Climate Change (MoEFCC) published the proposed amendments to the Forest (Conservation) Act of 1980, six months post the approval from the Union cabinet. 

On October 2, 2021, the Ministry invited objections and suggestions from the state government as well as the general public within 15 days on the proposed amendments. Based on the feedback received, the government will draw up a draft amendment which will be followed by a second round of public consultation before the Bill is finalized and tabled in the Parliament. 

Through these amendments, the Ministry is seeking to redefine the definition of a ‘forest’ which has long been contentious. Through this article, let us dig deeper into the Forest (Conservation) Act, 1980, proposed amendments in the Act, issues raised and its positive aspects. 

What is the Forest (Conservation) Act of 1980?

The Forest (Conservation) Act, 1980 addresses the issues related to deforestation and forest governance as all the forest acts prior to this were not centred around conservation but the extraction of the forest. 

Issues with the Forest (Conservation) Act, 1980

The Forest (Conservation) Act of 1980 made the approval from the Government of India mandatory before diverting forest land for non-forest purposes, thereby making it difficult for the state or private entities to access the forest land for infrastructure development, extraction, drilling and so forth.

As the present definition of the ‘forest’ has locked the forest land pan India, disallowing the private entities to use their own forest land for non-forestry purposes. The Ministry in its consultation paper said that considering any private area as the forest would restrict the right of an individual to use his/her own land for any non-forestry activity.

Forest (Conservation) Act, 1980: Why is the government amending the Act?

The government’s push to amend the Forest (Conservation) Act will make it easier to divert forest for non-forest use. According to the officials of the Ministry of Environment, Forests and Climate Change, the identification of the forest land is subjective and arbitrary. The proposed amendments will change this ambiguity as this often results in a lot of resentment and resistance from the private entities. The forest clearances usually take several years which result in a delay in infrastructural development. 

What is meant by Forest land?

In the T N Godavarman Thirumulpad v Union of India case, the Supreme Court of India expanded the scope and definition of forest land. According to the 1996 definition, the forest land stands for all the land that is demarcated as ‘forest’ in government records irrespective of ownership, classification and recognition. The apex court further ruled that any forested patch would be automatically deemed as a forest even if it is not notified as protected land, irrespective of its ownership. 

Forest (Conservation) Act,1980: What are the proposed amendments?

The proposed amendments are as follows:

1- All the land acquired by the Railways and Road Ministries before 1980 will be exempted under the Act as these were acquired for expansion but forests have grown in these areas over the years, barring the government from using these lands for expansion. If passed in the parliament, the Ministries will no longer need forest clearance for their projects nor to have to pay compensation levies to build infrastructure on these lands. 

2- It further proposes that individuals whose lands fall within the ambit of state-specific Private Forests Act or in the present definition of forest land, the construction of structures for bona fide purposes including residential units up to 250 sq m as a one-time relaxation will be allowed.

3- Further, any defence project close to the international borders will be exempted from forest clearance.

4- Extraction of oil and natural gas from the forest land will be permitted only if technologies such as Extended Reach Drilling are used. 

5- During the renewal of a lease, the levies for non-forestry purposes will not be applicable here. The Ministry said that double levy at the time of awarding the lease and the renewal is not rational. 

6- Strip plantations on the sides of roads are exempted under the proposed amendment.

Forest (Conservation) Act,1980: Concerns related to the proposed amendments

1- The activists and opposition parties believe that the relaxation in forest rules will help corporate owners and will result in the disappearance of large patches of forest lands. 

2- If forests on private land are exempted under the amendment, much of India’s forest cover will vanish.

3- Tribals and forest dwellers will be severely impacted by these amendments.

4- Exemption for Railways and Roads on forest land will be detrimental to the forest as well as wildlife. 

5- Many countries across the world have committed to a net zero-goal by 2050. Also, the Paris Agreement mandates to create more carbon sinks such as forests, and giving clearances to forest land for non-forest use will result in the depletion of forests. 

Forest (Conservation) Act,1980: Positive aspects

Several environmentalists have lauded the ministry’s decision to make the proposal public. The groups have also acknowledged the government’s attempt to define the forests, which was often ambiguous. It has also disallowed diversions in certain forest areas. 

The proposed amendment makes the forest laws more stringent for notified forests, making offences non-bailable with increased penalties including imprisonment up to a year. 

Also Read | Delhi Forest Department to develop four new forests in the National Capital: Here's everything you need to know

What is 'Green Ramayana Park' developed by the Forest Department of Uttarakhand?

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