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Changes to Forest Conservation Act

  • IAS NEXT, Lucknow
  • 07, Oct 2021
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The Union Government has proposed certain amendments to the existing  Forest Conservation Act(FCA).

Proposed changes:

  1. Absolve agencies involved in national security projects and border infrastructure projects from obtaining prior forest clearance from the Centre. Such a permission is necessary under the Forest Conservation Act (FCA).
  2. Exempt land acquired before 1980 — before the FCA came into effect — by public sector bodies such as the Railways.
  3. Facilitating private plantations for harvesting and exploration or extraction of oil and natural gas deep beneath forest land by drilling holes from outside the forest areas.
  4. Building in forests: To ease the grievances of the individuals whose land fall in state specific private forests act or within the purview of dictionary meaning of forest, the ministry has proposed to allow them the right to construct structures for bonafide purposes including forest protection measures and residential units up to an area of 250 sq mtr as one time relaxation.
  5. Punishments: Make offences under the modified Act punishable with simple imprisonment for a period which may extend to one year and make it cognisable and non-bailable.
  6. It also has provisions for penal compensation to make good for the damage already done.

What next?

Please note that these are just proposals. The document is open to public discussion for 15 days after which it could be readied for Cabinet and parliamentary approval.

Why were these amendments necessary?

The essential tension in the FCA is that the state is committed to a principle of increasing forest cover, and this makes it harder to access land for infrastructure projects by States and private entities.

  • Several Ministries have expressed resentment on how the Act was being interpreted over the right of way of railways, highways.
  • As of today, a landholding agency (Rail, NHAI, PWD, etc.) is required to take approval under the Act and pay stipulated compensatory levies such as Net Present Value (NPV), Compensatory Afforestation(CA), for use of such land which was originally been acquired for non-forest purposes.
  • With more land coming under the definition of “forest”, it’s becoming harder for State Governments or private industry to use land that falls under the definition of “forest” for non-forestry purposes.
  • Through the years, this has given rise to multiple instances of litigation, as well questions on the legal definition of “forest”.
  • States have been told to provide a definition of what constitutes a forest, but several haven’t given them because this has political consequences. All of this has led to conflicting interpretations of the FCA through the years.

The proposed amendment is part of a larger rationalising of existing forest laws.

When was the FCA enacted?

The FCA first came in 1980 and was amended in 1988.

While States had already notified forest land, the FCA made it necessary to get the Centre’s permission for using such forest land for “non forestry purposes” and the creation of an advisory committee to recommend such re-classification.

The 1996 Supreme Court judgment (in TN Godavarman Thirumulpad versus Union of India and Others case) paved the way for the calculating:

  1. The net present value, or the economic value of the portion of forest being razed for development work that had to be paid by project proponents.
  2. The creation of a compensatory afforestation fund.
  3. Providing non-forestry land in lieu of the diverted forest.

Definition of “Forest”:

Before the 1996 Supreme Court judgement in TN Godavarman Thirumulpad versus Union of India and Others, forest land was only that as was defined by the 1927 Forest Act. But the court included all areas which are recorded as ‘forest’ in any government record, irrespective of ownership, recognition and classification.