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Proposal to Redefine Forests

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October 14, 2021

Why in news?

The Ministry for Environment, Forests and Climate Change (MoEFCC) has proposed amendments to the Forest Conservation Act, 1980 for easing the diversion of forests.

Why is the Act being amended now?

  • The current definition of forests has created a situation where even private owners cannot utilise their own property for non-forestry purposes.
  • The Act mandates prior approval of the Centre for diversion of any forest land for any purpose, including assignment of leases.
  • In T N Godavarman Thirumulpad v Union of India, 1996 , the Supreme Court expanded the definition of forest land to include all areas recorded as forest in any government record, irrespective of ownership, recognition and classification.
  • It also expanded the definition of forests to include dictionary meaning of forests thereby meaning a forested patch as a “deemed forest” even if it is not notified by government or in historical records.
  • The Act is also applicable over plantations in non-forest land.
  • Requirement of forest clearance delays the infrastructure projects causing resentment in the Ministry of Railways, Ministry of Road, Transport & Highways.
  • The proposed amendment aims to streamline the provisions of the Act which has been amended only once before, in 1988.

What are the proposed amendments?

  • All land acquired by the Railways and Roads Ministries prior to 1980 will be exempted from the Act.
  • Defence projects near international borders will be exempted from forest clearance.
  • Strip plantations alongside roads that would fall under the Act will be exempted.
  • Oil and natural gas extraction from forested lands will be permitted only if technologies such as Extended Reach Drilling are used.
  • Construction of structures for bona fide purposes (residential units up to 250 sq m) as a one-time relaxation has been allowed for individuals whose lands fall within Private Forests Act or within the dictionary meaning of forest as specified by Supreme Court.
  • Levies for non-forestry purposes during the renewal of a lease will be eliminated.
  • Prior approval of Government of India is necessary for de-reservation of reserved forests and for the use of forest land for non-forest purposes.
  • It also proposes removing zoos, safaris, forest training infrastructures from the definition of “non-forestry” activities.

What are the positives in the proposal?

  • Recognising the concerns of Ministries such as Rail and Roads and allowing public debate on the proposals are welcomed by environmental groups.
  • Forest laws for notified forests have been made more stringent making offences non-bailable with increased penalties including imprisonment of up to one year.
  • The amendment has attempted to define and identify forests once and for all thus removing the existing ambiguity.
  • In certain forests, the amendment has disallowed any kind of diversion.

What are the concerns?

  • Relaxation of forest rules will facilitate corporate ownership and disappearance of large tracts of forests.
  • The exemption of forests on private land will lead to disappearance of forests in states like Uttarakhand where 4% land falls under private forests.
  • The amendments do not address the concerns of tribals and forest dwelling communities by ignoring the existence of the Forest Rights Act, 2006.
  • Exemption for Roads and Railways on forest land acquired prior to 1980 will be detrimental to forests and wildlife especially elephants, tigers and leopards.
  • One time exemption for private residences on private forest will lead to fragmentation of forests and open up areas like Aravalli Mountains to real estate.


Source: The Indian Express, Down to Earth

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