The Forest (Conservation) Amendment Bill, 2023 has been the subject of intense controversy in India. Despite facing opposition from various quarters, including environmentalists, forest rights activists, and political parties, the government is moving forward with its introduction in the upcoming Monsoon Session of Parliament. Let’s take a closer look at the provisions of the bill and the reasons behind the controversies surrounding it.
Provisions of the Bill: The proposed Forest (Conservation) Amendment Bill aims to amend the existing Forest (Conservation) Act of 1980. One key provision is the exemption of certain categories of land from legal regulations. This exemption is intended to fast-track strategic and security-related projects of national importance. The bill proposes excluding forest lands that have been notified as forests under the Indian Forest Act of 1927 or recorded as forests in government records after the formulation of the 1980 Act.
Another significant aspect of the bill is the redefinition of exemptions for “non-forest purposes” outlined in Section 2 of the Forest Conservation Act. The new law suggests excluding forest land within 100 km of India’s international borders, including the Line of Actual Control (LAC), from the Act’s purview. The purpose of this exclusion is to utilize the land for national security projects, construction of public roads, and other strategic initiatives.
Controversies and Opposition: The provisions of the Forest (Conservation) Amendment Bill have faced criticism from various groups. Environmentalists argue that the bill jeopardizes ecologically sensitive areas and biodiversity hotspots, as it allows for encroachment, diversion, and exploitation of forests for non-forest purposes.
Opposition parties, including the Congress and the Trinamool Congress, have strongly protested against the proposal to exempt forest land within 100 km of international borders. They argue that clearing forests in Himalayan, trans-Himalayan, and northeastern regions can have adverse effects on weather patterns and biodiversity. The Opposition has called for restricting the exemption to the ‘Himalayan’ borders only.
Another point of contention is the proposed renaming of the law as the Bill Van (Sanrakshan Evam Samvardhan) Adhiniyam. The Opposition has objected to this and advocated for retaining the English name to ensure inclusivity for non-Hindi speaking populations.
Concerns have also been raised about the potential dilution of the Forest Rights Act, 2006. Parties and conservationists from the northeast argue that the bill could privatize forest land and resources, threatening the livelihoods of tribal communities. They demand the mandatory consent of gram sabhas (village councils) in affected areas and proper rehabilitation and compensation for displaced forest dwellers before implementing any development projects.
Moreover, environmentalists highlight concerns regarding the inclusion of ‘eco-tourism’ hotspots in the bill. They argue that the lack of clear guidelines surrounding this term could lead to the exploitation of forests and the plant and animal species dependent on them.
Conclusion: The Forest (Conservation) Amendment Bill has generated significant controversy due to its potential impact on forest protection, tribal rights, and ecological balance. While the government is pushing for its enactment, opposition parties and environmentalists continue to voice their concerns, advocating for safeguards and inclusive decision-making processes to protect the country’s forests and biodiversity.