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FOREST (CONSERVATION) ACT: INDIA

“At Bassia’s spring

The kewar grove is planted

Rider, come and pick the blossom

In the planted grove.”

— The Blue Grove : The Poetry of the Oraons.

Trans. W.G. Archer (1940).

The amendment Bill is expected to significantly affect around 95% of the Niyamgiri hill range, which is home to the Dongria Kondh, a Particularly Vulnerable Tribal Group. | Photo Credit: K.R. Deepak/The Hindu

Human greed has always surpassed human needs. Since the beginning of time, nature has sustained life in various ways. However, it is the humans, the animal of the highest order who is making the most of their privilege. In its early stages of evolution, we have seen a commendable adaptive nature of humans and other living beings. As per the studies done by the Naturalist, human beings have always been in struggle against nature. Whether be it harsh weather conditions, or a search for favourable habitats. Humans have always been in the run and harmony was established only 160,000 years ago with the appearance of early modern humans. This harmony was manifested in the image of their superiors, whom the Homo sapiens worshipped or pleased out of fear, which somewhere in the line was later canonized as God or Creator. But the struggle for life and fear of the unknown prevailed.


A glimpse of such an understanding can still be seen in the Tribal Cultures of the world. For instance, the Garo-Khasi tribes of Northeast India protect their sacred groves from any human interference. They consider the groves to be sacred and thus refrain from picking fallen fruits and foliage. Meanwhile, the Goods of Central India forbid cutting down trees but permit the use of their fallen pieces in the sacred groves.


In India, since ancient times the cult of worshipping nature has always been in vogue. Even though not gigantically the merging of nature with religion is making its contribution towards the conservation of nature. Strange, right never ever thought that there’d be any need to conserve or protect the Almighty ‘Nature’. But here we are at the threshold.


One hunk of the world “developed” majestically at the expense of the other and when the “time” for the other hunk to climb upon such “prosperity” came nature was already complaining! And so now the thinking human thinks of “conserving” the mighty nature and her resources at the expense of their own “development.” We have come a long way, since evolution and we, have had the tendency to associate the word “development” with another constructed institution of “Government” or any equivalent authority. Who tend to be below the Creator but definitely above the common creation of the Creator, “responsible” for the “development”, “progress” and “greater good for all”.


Governments all over the world have been working along the lines of preserving, conserving, and protecting nature in general and forests in particular. Forests in the simplest of understanding support not one but various habitats. These habitats are responsible for the smooth running of our ecosystem and major disturbances to the ecosystem might cause the unthinkable.


The Government of India too has produced certain measures to conserve the forests. The Act helps strike a balance between development and environmental protection by ensuring the sustainable use of forest resources.

HISTORY

To begin with, the very first legal draft on the issue of the Indian Forest Act was in the year 1865. In the later colonial years, it was replaced by the Indian Forest Act, of 1927. This Act as speculated by the law commentators, was like the many legislative tools of that time was merely to cater to the British interest.


The main focus of the Indian Forest Act of 1927 was on timber. Under this Act, the government of the time had the power to control the rights of tribal people to use forests. Besides, through this Act, the government had the power to create reserved forests. It aimed to regulate the forest produce and levy taxes on timber and other forest produce, which would serve as a source of revenue for the government.


It was only sometime after Independence, that the Government of India addressed the need to conserve forests. When the Constitution of India was adopted in 1950, there were no such laws catering to the conservation of the forest. It was through the Constitution’s Forty Second Amendment Act of 1976 that this piece was introduced. Article 48A was added to the part of the Directive Principles of the State Policy and Article 51A as a fundamental duty of every citizen of India.


Thus, in the year, 1980 the then President of India, Sri Neelam Sanjiva Reddy introduced an Ordinance on Forest Conservation. The ordinance under Section 5 of the Forest Conservation Act, of 1980 was repealed and the Act officially came into force on October 25, 1980.

THE ACT

The Forest (Conservation) Act, 1980 (Act No. 69 of 1980) states that the Act - Extends to the whole of India, except Jammu and Kashmir.

The Act directs the “Restriction on the de-reservation of forests or use of forest land for non-forest purpose” (meaning, breaking up or clearing of any forest land or portion for the purpose of the Cultivation of tea, spices, rubber, palms, oil-bearing plants, horticultural crops or medicinal plants and for any other purpose other than reafforestation). This section restricts the State Governments or any other authority without the prior approval of the Central Government that -


I. Any reserved forest or any portion under the expression of “reserved forest” can be brought into the status of de-reserve.


II. That the forest land or any portion of it cannot be used for non-forest purposes.


III. That any forest land or any portion of it by way of lease to any private person or anybody or organization not controlled by the Government of India, cannot be assigned by the State Governments.


IV. That a forest land or any part of it grown naturally may be cleared for Re- re-afforestation.

Further under this section, there is an appeal to the National Green Tribunal, stating that any person who might be dissatisfied with the order or decision of the State Government or other authority made under section 2, may file an appeal stating the concern to the National Green Tribunal which was commenced in 2010.

ADVISORY COMMITTEE

This section states that the Central Government might constitute a Committee constituting such persons who shall deem fit to advise the Government with regard to -

I. The grant of approval under section 2


II. any other matter connected with the conservation of forests which may be referred to by the Central Government.

PENALTY

This section of the act states that whoever offend against the order or encourage such treason or any of the provisions mentioned in section 2, shall be subject to simple imprisonment for a period which may extend to 15 days.


According to 3B (1), If the offence has been committed by any government department, head of the department or by any authority, every person who at the time the offence was committed, was directly in charge of and was responsible to, the authority for the conduct of the business as well as the authority, shall be deemed guilty of the offence and shall be liable to proceed against and get punished accordingly.


However, the Act also states that, if the same person proves that the offence was committed without his knowledge even after taking all the possible measures to prevent the commission of the offence, they might be able to avoid the penalty.

POWER TO MAKE RULES

This section states that the Central Government may, by notifying the Official Gazette, make rules for carrying out the provisions of this Act.


It furthers that, every rule made under this Act shall be presented before each house of the parliament, while it is in session, for a period of 30 days. And if need be, both houses on agreement shall propose any modification or none to be introduced. Thus, the rule shall thereafter have effect in its modified form or none at all.


REPEAL AND SAVING

This section of the Act states that the Forest (Conservation) Ordinance, 1980 (17 of 1980) is repealed.


In spite of the repeal of the Ordinance, anything done or any action taken under the provisions of the said Ordinance shall be deemed to have been taken under the corresponding provisions of this Act.

Activists across India use social media, and ground campaigns to oppose Forest Conservation Bill

FOREST CONSERVATION AMENDMENT BILL 2023

After more than four decades, the government proposed to “broaden the horizons of the Act… to keep its provisions in sync with the dynamic changes in the ecological, strategic and economic aspirations” of the country. As told by the Union Environment Minister Bhupendra Yadav Lok Sabha, that over three lakh hectares of forest land has been diverted for non-forestry use in India over the last 15 years under the Forest (Conservation) Act, 1980.


Recently, as quoted by the Hindu, “the highly controversial” Forest (Conservation) Amendment Bill 2023 awaits debate in the Rajya Sabha after having been passed by the Lok Sabha with almost no debate in the month of June.


Experts state that the Bill seeks to restrict the conservation scope of the Act to only certain forest lands. It also exempts border lands from the obligation to seek permissions to clear forests in order to construct “strategic linear projects of national importance”. Finally, it also allows some non-forest activities on forest lands, like running zoos and ‘eco-tourism’ facilities.


The concern regarding the Bill is that it redefines what a ‘forest’ is in Indian Law. It demands that only those lands that were notified as ‘forest’ under the Indian Forest Act 1927, or any other relevant law that were recorded as ‘forests’ in government records will be acknowledged as ‘forests’ under the Act as well.


However, previously the Act was applicable to ‘any forest land’. A Supreme Court judgment of 1996 reiterated the same. The Apex court in T.N. Godavarman Thirumulkpad v. Union of India (UOI) and Ors. (AIR 1997 SC 1228), has given a wider meaning to forest land to broaden the scope of protection. It said, among other things that a ‘forest’ includes all land recorded as such in government records regardless of ownership as well as “deemed forests”, which are not officially classified as ‘forests’ but satisfy the dictionary meaning of the word: any large area with significant tree cover and undergrowth.

The areas that stand to be affected in a significant way include about 40% of the Aravalli range and 95% of the Niyamgiri hill range; the latter is home to the Dongria Kondh, a Particularly Vulnerable Tribal Group.


The Bill seeks to exempt linear infrastructure projects – like roads and highways – from seeking forest clearance permissions if they are located within 100 km of the national border. Experts have raised concerns because “strategic linear projects of national importance” is an undefined term and can thus be misused to push through infrastructure projects that are devastating for the local ecology.


This is of particular concern in the Northeastern States, where the exemption would apply de facto almost across the region.


The Bill was introduced in the Lok Sabha in March, where it was referred to a Joint Parliamentary Committee (JPC) comprising of 32 members from both the houses of the Parliament and across party lines.


Bill, however, as stated by the reports, was not referred to the relevant Parliamentary Standing Committee, which in this case would have been the Standing Committee on Science and Technology, Environment, Forests and Climate Change, headed by Congress MP Jairam Ramesh. Per the Pre-legislative Consultation Policy, it is considered good practice – though not mandatory – to refer Bills to Standing Committees for review. However, the government bypassed this oversight function in the case of the Forest (Conservation) Amendment Bill 2023.

CONCLUSION

The greater cloud of concern regarding the amendment bill has been that it is breaking from the prevailing legal definition of ‘forests’ and contributing to creating Carbon Sinks rather than conserving forests.


The story of “development” has never been pleasant for everyone. As mentioned in the opening passages it is done at the expense of someone, who might even not enjoy the fruits of the so-called development. The secret behind a successful instance of development happens when we are able to find the balance between the needs and costs to fulfil those needs. The concept of “Sustainable Development” is not new to our country, however, some new methods and approaches to attain it can be adopted.


India is the largest democracy in the world and being the largest democracy also comes with certain responsibilities. The Bureaucracy and the Lawmakers have a big role to play in it, hence a voice of appeal extends to this set of contributors that decisions and approaches that India is being introduced are certainly on the lines of the “Greater Good for all”. But true progress as a nation as a race will only be hinted at if we were to redefine whom and what we consider in the generic terminology of “all”. To begin with, maybe we can get started with an understanding that the natural resources and various flora and fauna present in our surroundings as essential components of our national natural treasure, thus broadening our understanding of all. This certainly wouldn’t be the first time, our land would witness this broadened understanding for, in around the 3rd century BCE Piyadasi, the former emperor of the Mauryan Empire was working on the same lines. For instance, the edicts of Ashoka advocated restraint in the number that had to be killed for consumption, protected some of them, and in general condemned violent acts against animals, such as castration. Whether it had been followed entirely is a debate for another time. But the spectacular effort was taken up during a time as old as he surely hints us to be even better today.


To be more precise and less utopian, the government can be expected to initiate certain awareness programs and emphasise the importance of natural resources in general and forests in particular. Make it a mandatory activity in schools, colleges and workplaces if possible.


We also expect the government to invest in R&D to create sustainable, cheap and eco-friendly alternatives.


The government can also be expected to work concretely on various promotional programs, like providing subsidies on certain accounts for private manufacturing companies, fashion industries or startups that are working in harmony with environment-friendly goods. Besides, take up strong measures on entities who are in contrast.


For us citizens of India, we must support the government by analytically following the directions it produces from time to time and that would be our contribution. All of us do not need to go to the border to prove our love and respect for our country, but we can simply start off by acting on this little but essential responsibility. And maybe if at all this time, we might take our chances to make Piyadasi proud by acute execution of our plan, rather than the other way round.


For the good, for the better, for the best, for the future, we stand and change with responsibility.


Saumia Shalini Bilung is a first-year post graduation student of History at Jamia Milia Islamia, she completed her Bachelor's in History from Jesus and Mary College, University of Delhi. She hails from Ranchi, Jharkhand. Her fields of interest lie in history, political discourses and Adivasi rights.

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