Forest (Conservation) Act

The Bill to amend the Forest (Conservation) Act cleared the Lok Sabha recently.

The FC Act, 1980

The Forest (Conservation) Act of 1980 introduced the limitation on using forests for non-forest activities.

Aims:

  1. To protect the flora, fauna, and other ecological components.
  2. To protect the integrity, individuality, and territory of the forests.
  3. To replenish forests by planting more trees.
  4. To prevent the conversion of forest reserves into grazing lands, residential units, agricultural lands, etc.
  5. To stop the decline of forest biodiversity.

Features of the Act:

  • It restricts and regulates the power of the State Government and other authoritative organizations from making decisions on some issues without taking permission from the Central Government.
  • An advisory committee may be formed to aid the Central Government.
  • The Central Government holds the absolute power to carry out any laws formulated under this Act.
  • The Act states that anybody found violating the provisions of this Act is liable for paying penalties.

Constitutional Mandate for the conservation of forests

  • When the Indian Constitution got drafted in 1950, the framers had no notion that future challenges with forest protection would develop.
  • It was later realised when the Constitution (Forty-Second Amendment) Act, 1976, was passed, and Article 48A was added to the section of Directive Principles of State Policy.
  • As per Article 48A, the state shall enact laws to conserve and improve the environment to protect our forests.
  • Article 51A is a fundamental duty of every Indian.
  • According to Article 51A(g), it is the responsibility of every Indian citizen to maintain and improve the natural environment, particularly our country’s forests.

Previous amendments to the Act

  • It is not the first time that the act is being amended.
  • The FCA was previously amended in 1988 and 1996.
  • Before 1996, the State Governments, Union Territory Administrations and Central Government used to apply the provisions of the Act to reserve forests and national parks only.
  • In 1996, in T N Godavarman Thirumulpad v Union of India case, the Supreme Court expanded the definition and scope of forest land to include all areas recorded as forest in any government record, irrespective of ownership, recognition and classification.
  • The order was also interpreted to presume that the Act is applicable over plantations in non-forest land.

The recent Amendment:

Exemption for government:

  • It has been proposed that all land acquired by the Railways and Roads Ministries prior to 1980 be exempted from the Act.
  • It says these lands had been acquired for expansion, but subsequently forests have grown in these areas, and the government is no longer able to use the land for expansion.
  • If the amendment is brought in, these Ministries will no longer need clearance for their projects, nor pay compensatory levies to build there.
  • It proposes that the Act will be applicable only on notified forest land and land identified as forest on government records except such forests that were already put to other use prior to the 1996 SC order. 

For individuals:

For individuals whose lands fall within a state-specific Private Forests Act or specified in the 1996 Supreme Court order, the government proposes to allow construction of structures for bona fide purposes’ including residential units up to 250 sq m as a one-time relaxation.

Assignment/leasing of forest land: 

  • Under the previous Act, a state government requires prior approval of the central government to assign forest land to any entity not owned or controlled by government.
  • In the Bill, this condition is extended to all entities, including those owned and controlled by government.
  • It also requires that prior approval be subject to terms and conditions prescribed by the central government.

Permitted activities in forest land: 

  • The Act restricts the de-reservation of forests or use of forest land for non-forest purposes.
  • Such restrictions may be lifted with the prior approval of the central government.

Concerns:

  • It evidently seems to exempt certain categories of infrastructure project developers from approaching the Centre for permission to use forest land for non-forestry purposes which will certainly lead to facilitating corporate ownership and the disappearance of large tracts of forests.
  • Exemption for Roads and Railways on forest land acquired prior to 1980 will be detrimental to forests as well as wildlife – especially elephants, tigers and leopards.
  • The one-month time limit was a breach of pre-legislative consultation policy.

SOURCE: THE HINDU, THE ECONOMIC TIMES, PIB

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