Even as India witnessed enormous forest fires and 20% forest degradation, according to the Global Forests Watch, the Narendra Modi-led government is aiming to dilute the Forest Conservation Act, 1980, and limit the role of the state in forest matters.
In a letter dated March 22 and addressed to additional chief secretaries (forest)/ principal secretaries (forest) of all state governments and Union Territories, the Environment Ministry stated, “A state government/UT administration will not impose any additional condition after in-principle approval has been accorded.” The “approval” here relates to construction projects and development initiatives among other key projects to be undertaken by private players on forest lands.
Courtesy: Kanchi Kohli, senior researcher Center for Policy Research
Experts feel that under the current climate of dilution of laws preventing forest degradation, the motive of the Centre to privatise forest land has become clear. The Hindustan Times earlier reported that the logic of the Centre behind limiting the role of the state was oriented towards limiting any confusion and interjections pertaining to the projects.
Speaking to NewsClick, Sricharan Behara of the Campaign for Survival and Dignity (CSD) explained the dangers and the patterns associated with the move. “If the state government has less control in forest matters then the central government will do what they want. Earlier, a little bit of control was with the state government; it was not democratisation but there was a hope. Even before Covid and even amidst Covid, they acted according to their will, leading to enormous degradation and evictions.” Behara further said, “The central government is targeting to create enormous powers of forests control. This is a threat not only to forests or farmers, but to everyone as it attacks the federal-democratic structure, which will lead to adverse impact on the forests as well as those inhabiting the forests.”
Changes in Forest Conservation Act
At present, the power of the states regarding forest land is being taken away at a time when India has lost a larger area under tree cover in humid primary forests in 2020 (20.8 kilo hectares) compared to 17.3 kilo hectares in 2019. The move is also being timed with the slew of changes being made to the original forest conservation act. Documents accessed by authors at the Down to Earth show, the amendments have been shared with the Union cabinet this month, but they have not been made public. The changes will be giving exemptions and easy clearances to railway, road and other projects.
Moreover, the earlier practice of re-plantation is also muddled and can suffer a major setback in the new changes with easing out of norms for developers. Commenting on the intent of the government, senior environmental lawyer Rahul Chaudhary said, “When we look at constructions--this is not limited to reserved forests, the government is constructing and denotifying land everywhere including sanctuaries. Nothing is sacrosanct for this government. Forest lands have become soft targets.”
He said that it has become increasingly clear that both state and central governments want to divert land. “According to a judgement in 1996, all forests resembling reserved forests--for example in Aravalli-- are not declared forest lands, but by nature they are forests. The government is pushing these out of the definition of forest. India recently showed an increase in the forest cover--by simply including green areas in the cover. It could be an underestimation that the degradation of forests is only 20%,” Chaudhary said,
The direct impact of this move is likely to be on tribal communities and land rights as well. More than 60% of the forest area in the country falls within 187 tribal districts. The modifications to the laws made unilaterally may also pave way for renewed conflicts as they were done without consultations with the local communities. Madhuri Krishanaswmy of the Jagrit Adivasi Dalit Sangathan said, “These steps are being used to deny tribal communities their land pattas (claims). The government and the forest department are not interested in conservation at all. She added that had conservation been a concern, the government would involve the communities living on the land for generations. “Instead, the government is denying them ownership and selling off of their land, which does not even belong to the government,” she said.
This move is being seen as a big blow to the tribal communities and their fight for land rights, say activists on the ground, adding that this is yet another move to privatise land.