On August 2, the Indian Parliament passed the Forest (Conservation) Amendment Bill,2023, in a bid to further India’s commitment to sustainable and inclusive development in the country. These amendments now form a crucial part of the Forest (Conservation) Act, 1980, the principle law that regulates the diversion of forest land for non-forest purposes with a vision to ensure that tribal people have access to basic amenities that enhance their ease of living. Forest protection laws in India influence the environmental clearance process by requiring project proponents to obtain approval for the diversion of forest land and by mandating compensatory afforestation measures to mitigate the environmental impact of such diversions.
The Forest (Conservation) Act of 1980 has been an essential central statute for the conservation of forests in the country. Under this law, any project that requires the use of forest land must obtain prior approval from the central government. It provides that the de-reservation of reserved forests, use of forest land for non-forest purposes, assigning forest land by way of lease or otherwise to a private entity and clearing of naturally grown trees for the purpose of reforestation requires prior permission of the Central Government.
The applicability of the Act in various types of lands has been dynamic, i.e. initially, provisions of the Act were being applied to the notified forest land only. Subsequently, After the Judgement dated 12.12.1996, the Act was made applicable to revenue forest land or in lands which were recorded as forest in government records and to areas which look like forest in their dictionary meaning. Many of such lands were already put to non-forestry use, such as habitations, institutions, roads, etc., with the required approval of the competent authority. This situation resulted in different interpretations of the provisions of the Act with respect to their applicability, especially in recorded forest lands, private forest lands, plantations, etc.
The Forest (Conservation) Act (FCA) was enacted on October 25 1980. It aimed to regulate the use of forestland for various other non-forest purposes. The Act stipulated that the de-reservation of reserved forests, use of forest land for non-forest purposes, assigning forest land by way of lease or otherwise to private entities and clearing of naturally grown trees for reforestation requires prior permission of the Union government.
A paradigm shift in the applicability of the FCA was observed after the Supreme Court’s orders in the Godavarman case (1996). The SC clarified that the Act would apply not only to notified forest land — forest lands recorded in government records — but also to areas resembling forests as per dictionary meaning. Each state government had to constitute an expert committee to identify such lands, plantations and private forests. After the order, the Act was made applicable to revenue forest land or in lands which were recorded as forest in government records and to areas which resembled forests as per their dictionary meaning. Many such lands were already put to non-forestry use with the required approval of the competent authority. This resulted in different interpretations of the FCA’s provisions, especially in recorded forest lands, private forest lands and plantations. Developmental work could not be undertaken in government-recorded forestlands that were put to non-forestry use after state sanction. India’s total forest cover is 7,13,789 sq. km 21.71 per cent of the country’s geographical area. The country’s forest cover has increased by 1,540 sq km, and the tree cover has increased by 721 sq. km compared to the assessment in 2019.
The Forest (Conservation) Amendment addresses the abovementioned concerns in the following manner.
When applying for environmental clearance, project proponents must comply with various environmental laws, including forest protection laws. If a project requires the diversion of forest land, the environmental clearance process considers the provisions of forest protection laws. The project proponent needs to demonstrate that adequate compensatory afforestation measures will be taken to mitigate the loss of forest land. These measures typically involve the reforestation or regenerating an equivalent area of non-forest land. Additionally, the environmental clearance process evaluates the project’s impact on biodiversity, wildlife habitats, and protected areas. Projects that could adversely affect ecologically sensitive areas or endangered species may face stricter scrutiny and may require additional mitigation measures. EIA, wildlife conservation planning and forest clearance for development projects will therefore need expert assistance and guidance from environmental experts considering the newly introduced provisions.
The Forest (Conservation) Amendment Bill 2023 was passed by the parliament to amend the decades-old Forest (Conservation) Act of 1980. The Bill seeks to address the challenges faced in the implementation of the 1980 statute in view of the Supreme Court’s order dated 12 December 1996
The Bill was brought to Amend the Forest (Conservation) Act of 1980 and make it applicable to certain types of land. These include areas notified as a forest under the Indian Forest Act of 1927 or in government records after the 1980 Act came into effect.
With this bio-geographical background, the new Forest Policy of Rajasthan 2023 has been brought out by the government. The policy aims to increase vegetation cover to 20 per cent of the geographical area within 20 with a special focus on increasing vegetation cover outside forests.
The amendments of the Forest Conservation Act restrict the conservation scope of the 1980 Act to only certain forest lands. It exempts border areas from the obligation to take permission to clear forests to build “strategic linear projects of national importance.
The new Act will facilitate the decision-making process in the developmental projects involving non-forestry use of forest land by the authorities. Exemption of such recorded forest land, which has already been put to non-forestry use before 12.12.1996 by the orders of the competent authority, can be used for taking benefits of various developmental schemes of the state as well as Central Government.
The Central Government has moved the Forest Conservation Amendment Bill 2023 with an aim to achieve the national as well as international commitments of NDCs, eliminate the ambiguities and bring clarity about the applicability of the Act in different types of lands, along with promoting plantation in non-forest land, enhance the productivity of the forests.
The key highlights of the Forest Conservation Act 1980 include the de-reservation of reserved forests, use of forest land for non-forest purposes, assigning forest land by way of lease or otherwise to a private entity and clearing of naturally grown trees for the purpose of reafforestation requires prior permission of the Central Government.
Read our Article: The Indian Forest Act, 1927