Redefining of forests: The Ministry of Environment, Forests and Climate Change (MoEFCC) last week published the proposed amendments to the Forest Conservation Act, 1980. As per the proposed changes, it would become easier to divert forests and certain categories of development would also be exempted from needing to get clearance from the ministry, according to a report in IE. State governments and the general public can provide feedback to the ministry on the proposed amendments within 15 days of publishing, which means that people still have about a week or so to go through the proposal and send recommendations to the ministry, if any.
Once the ministry examines the feedback, it will prepare a draft amendment. This draft amendment will also be made open to public suggestions and feedback, before the ministry would finally draw an amendment Bill and table it in the Parliament for consideration among the law-makers.
Before this, the act was amended back in 1988. However, the ministry now feels the need to change the act as the current definition of forests has caused land across the country to be locked, which means that even owners of the property cannot currently use a land defined as a forest for non-forestry purposes. The act also mandates all requests for diversion of forest land for any purposes, including lease assignment, to be approved by the Government of India.
Moreover, in 1996, a ruling of the Supreme Court had caused the scope of forest land to be expanded from just reserve forests and national parks to any forested patch irrespective of ownership of that land and of its protection status. The report, however, has now cited ministry officials as saying that the amendments aim to streamline the provisions under the act. They added that the current method of identification of forest land is ambiguous, arbitrary and subjective, due to which there has been a lot of resentment and resistance in this matter from private organisations and people. Not only that but such rules have also caused resentment among ministries of Railways and Road, since they also need forest clearance and that causes projects to be delayed.
As per the proposed amendments, all land that Ministries of Road and Railways had acquired before 1980 would stand exempted from the act, as they had been acquired for expansion, but overtime, growth of forest led to these ministries not being able to use this land for infrastructure projects. Apart from that, individuals who own lands falling under state-specific private forest act or under the dictionary meaning of forest would, as per the proposal, get a one-time relaxation to construct structures for bona fide purposes, including residential units having an area of up to 250 square metre.
Moreover, among some other changes, defence projects being undertaken near international borders would not need government clearance, according to the proposed changes, and extraction of oil and natural gas would also be allowed from forested lands as long as technologies like Extended Reach Drilling are used.
However, activists as well as leaders of the opposition are worried that the relaxations being proposed by the government would lead to corporate ownership as well as disappearance of forests in large numbers. Meanwhile, the environmental groups also noted that there were some positives like the proposal to make laws for notified forests more stringent and making offences non-bailable along with increased penalties including jail. Moreover, the diversion in certain forests has been completely disallowed in the proposed changes.