Why is it in the news?
- The Forest Conservation Amendment Act of 2023 aimed at addressing critical issues related to climate change and deforestation.
- Its primary focus is on effective forest management and afforestation, with the goal of combating the adverse effects of deforestation.
- The amendment seeks to determine how forests can be utilized for economic gain, and it outlines the strategies to achieve this goal.
About the Amendment
- One of the significant changes introduced by the amendment is the redefinition of the law’s jurisdiction. It excludes certain forest areas, effectively removing them from the purview of the Forest Conservation Act. These exclusions include forests converted for non-forest use after a specific date and lands near international borders where the central government can build linear projects.
- The central government is granted authority to construct security infrastructure and facilities for surveillance in specified areas, further emphasizing the focus on security and economic exploitation.
- Additionally, the amendment introduces the possibility of implementing initiatives like ecotourism, safaris, and environmental entertainment in these excluded areas, with the stated aim of improving the livelihoods of those who rely on forest resources.
- However, this approach has faced criticism from tribal communities and human rights activists.
Reasons for the Amendment
- The amendment was introduced in response to a landmark legal case known as the Godavarman Thirumulkpad case in 1996. This case led to a stricter interpretation of what constitutes forest land, effectively bringing all private forests under the ambit of the 1980 Forest Conservation Act.
- The legislation had been criticized for primarily serving the interests of restricting forest land from being used for non-forest purposes, including large-scale industrial development.
- This amendment reflects the ongoing tension between industrial demands and the rights of indigenous communities and environmental concerns.
Changes to “Prior Consent” and Compensatory Afforestation
- The Forest Conservation Act underwent important amendments in 2016 and 2017, which stipulated that prior consent from tribal grama sabha (village councils) was mandatory for any alterations to forests for non-forest purposes. However, the recent revisions to the legislation have removed the necessity for such consent.
- State governments can proactively engage in specific activities within this framework through the inclusion of grama sabhas, particularly in matters of land acquisition for various purposes, by establishing State-level steering committees. However, some State governments hesitate, fearing that Adivasi (indigenous) grama sabhas might oppose economically lucrative afforestation initiatives.
- Compensatory afforestation, as outlined in the new legislation, involves various projects and schemes that can be undertaken by private individuals and organizations for afforestation or reforestation purposes.
- However, concerns exist about the potential environmental implications of this amendment, as it does not specify the type of trees to be planted, leaving room for discretion.
Impact on Forest Rights Act (FRA)
- The Forest Rights Act (FRA) has had significant impacts in various regions, empowering communities to assert their rights over forest resources.
- However, it appears that both the Central and State governments have become less enthusiastic about implementing the FRA in their respective states. This is partly because Governments view community rights granted under the FRA as a challenge to their authority over the forest.
- Rather than amending the FRA, governments have chosen to reduce or dilute the extent of forest areas, thereby limiting the potential for additional Adivasi claims.
- The amendment also fails to address the growing issue of human-animal conflicts in forest areas, particularly in Adivasi hamlets in the Western Ghats region. This conflict endangers the livelihoods of Adivasis and poses a threat to wildlife.
Challenges and Problems with the Amendment
- While the Forest Conservation Amendment Act may seem to address issues effectively on the surf ace, its practical implementation poses substantial challenges.
- The concept of afforestation, which offers financial incentives to private individuals and institutions, fundamentally clashes with the idea of sustainable forest governance.
- It also contradicts the concept of decentralized forest governance, as forests in India fall under the concurrent list, and such governance practices are against the spirit of federal norms.
- Defining strategic linear projects, such as roads or railways, becomes exceptionally complex and vague under the new amendment. Unlike external security threats like border disputes, internal environmental security, especially in states prone to natural disasters, is not guaranteed priority.