Forest Conservation (Amendment) Act, 2023

The Forest (Conservation) Amendment Act, 2023 received the assent of the President on the 4th August, 2023. This act has amended the Forest (Conservation) Act, 1980. The 1980 act provides a framework for conservation of forests in India by regulating non-forestry use of forest land. The 2023 amendment aims to eliminate ambiguities, facilitate strategic projects, boost afforestation efforts, and promote livelihoods while retaining focus on conservation.

Background

The Forest (Conservation) Act, 1980 applies to reserved forests, protected forests, village forests, and forests registered in government records. It mandates Central Government permission for non-forestry use of forest land like de-reservation, assignment of lease, clearing trees, etc. After a 1996 Supreme Court judgment, the act’s provisions were also applied to lands that look like forests.

This created ambiguities in implementation with respect to plantations, private lands, etc. Also, meeting international commitments on climate change mitigation requires enhancing tree cover outside recorded forest areas. Meanwhile strategic projects concerning national security need faster clearances. The 2023 amendment addressed these concerns.

Objectives of the Amendment

The key objectives of the Forest (Conservation) Amendment Act, 2023 are:

  • Eliminate ambiguities regarding the act’s applicability on different types of lands
  • Exempt strategic defense projects from time-consuming clearance processes
  • Promote afforestation and tree plantation drives across the country
  • Balance conservation goals with sustainable livelihood needs of forest-dependent communities
  • Broaden the scope of the act to tackle climate change challenges

Key Features

The major features of the amendment as passed by Lok Sabha are:

Scope:
  • The act is renamed as Van (Sanrakshan Evam Samvardhan) Act, 1980 to reflect its focus on both conservation and growth of forests
  • A preamble is inserted highlighting mitigating climate change impact, achieving Net Zero targets, etc.
Exemptions:
  • 100 km buffer along international borders for strategic defense projects
  • Up to 0.1 ha forest land for connectivity to establishments near highways
  • 10 ha land for security infrastructure in Naxal-affected districts
  • 5 ha land in Left Wing Extremism districts for public utilities
Uniformity:
  • Same provisions for leasing forest land to private entities and government companies
Additional Activities:
  • Zoo, safari, eco-tourism with approved plans permitted as forestry activities
  • Infrastructure for frontline staff recognized as a forestry activity
Other Provisions:
  • Surveys and investigations deemed temporary non-forestry uses
  • Central government empowered to issue directions for implementation

Expected Outcomes

The amendment is expected to have the following impacts:

  • Boost green cover and carbon sequestration by encouraging plantations
  • Enable faster clearances for strategic and security projects
  • Clarify applicability on private, recorded, and other forest lands
  • Allow forest land use for public utilities in remote areas
  • Permit tourism activities subject to conservation safeguards
  • Augment facilities and infrastructure for better forest management

The changes retain focus on conservation while allowing sustainable use for livelihoods and strategic needs. Effective implementation can help balance these objectives.

Implications and Concerns

The amendment has raised several concerns. Firstly, the amendment seems to contradict the original intent of the 1980 Act, which was designed to prevent de-reservation of forest land and large-scale deforestation. Secondly, the exemptions granted by the 2023 Amendment might infringe upon the rights of forest dwelling communities protected under the 2006 Act, potentially weakening the latter’s purpose. Thirdly, the exemptions are provided without the consent or clearance of the authorities involved in the resolution process, as required by the 2006 Act. The 2023 Amendment also introduces a narrower interpretation of the term “forest land,” contrary to a broader definition provided by the Supreme Court in the case of T.N. Godavarman Thirumulkpad v. Union of India (AIR 1997 SC 1228). While the apex court defined forest land to include any area recorded as forest in government records, the amendment narrows it down to specific land declared or notified as forest under the Indian Forest Act, 1927, or other laws, and land recorded in government records after October 25, 1980.


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