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New Forest Bill: ‘Speaks Conservation, Acts Destruction’

Prakriti Srivastava, a former forest service officer, who has approached the Supreme Court with numerous concerned experts, speaks out against the Forest Conservation (Amendment) Bill.
New Forest Bill: ‘Speaks Conservation, Acts Destruction’

Representational Image. Image Courtesy: Flickr

Prakriti Srivastava, an Indian Forest Service Officer, who recently retired as Principal Chief Conservator of Forests in Kerala, is one of the 13 retired civil servants from the IAS, Foreign Service and Forest Service, who have filed a petition in the Supreme Court questioning the constitutionality of the Forest Conservation (Amendment) Bill 2023. A committed conservationist, Srivastava has fought to end teak, sandalwood and cannabis smuggling and illegal encroachments into forest land. In this interview with Rashme Sehgal, she describes what the objections to the FCAA are, and what they could mean for India’s biodiversity. 

Rashme Sehgal: What made you join the petitioners to question the constitutionality of the Forest Conservation (Amendment) Bill 2023 and why do you say the changes in the law would undermine the forest governance framework?

Prakriti Srivastava: The Forest Conservation Amendment Act (FCAA) 2023 subverts the Supreme Court’s 1996 Godavarman judgement, which gave young forest officers a strong weapon to fight for the protection of our forests and forest wealth. By overruling this judgement, it leaves conservation without its greatest support and defence. The extent of loss of forests from such a diminished law to protect forests, without the safeguards of the Godavarman judgement, is so scary that any committed forest officer can only be alarmed to have to enforce protection with it.

The negative outcomes of this amendment will be the death knell for our forests and their vast biodiversity. The so-called amendment is actually a new Act, being slipped through in the name of an amendment. The underlying objective is to allow easy diversions for “development”, though couched in the language of conservation, net zero carbon regime, etc. 

Restricting the Godavarman judgement, removing large swathes of forests from legal scrutiny for diversions, pockmarking our forests in the name of security and strategic installations without ecological scrutiny, making roads which will bisect forests, spreading plantations without evaluation or scrutiny of past outcomes, are a sure shot recipe for disaster. The exacerbation of human-wildlife conflict, climate change, loss of food security and ecological welfare and ecosystem services that forests provide, are inevitable outcomes of slackening our conservation laws.

RS: Scientists, forest officers, activists, and states had demanded the Bill be referred to the parliamentary committee on science, technology, environment and forests instead of being referred to a select committee all of whose members except one belonged to the BJP making its examination a highly partisan affair. Your comments?

PS: It appears to be a deliberate decision to present the Bill for examination to the Joint Parliamentary Committee (JPC) when Parliament already has a Standing Committee of Science and Technology, Environment, Forests and climate change, under whose ambit the said Bill would procedurally fall. Instead, the JPC was established, which prepared and presented a partisan and biased report to Parliament.

Further, on March 29, the JPC sought comments on the FCAA within two weeks, too little time for a Bill with such far-reaching ramifications. For instance, how would people, particularly forest-dependent communities in remote forests, know about, react to and prepare a studied response?

The present Amendment Act, titled ‘Van (Sanrakshan Evam Samvardhan) Adhiniyam, 1980, cannot be termed an Amendment of the Forest (Conservation) Act or FCA, 1980 since it fundamentally changes the object and purpose of the Act. This amounts to enacting a new law. The purpose of the FCA 1980 was to prevent deforestation by restricting diversion of forest land, which is now changed to a law that facilitates the diversion of forest land.

What the JPC has genuinely taken on board are the MoEF’s generic, unscientific explanations, which seem to have been liberally copy-pasted in its report.

The Bill was rushed through despite receiving 1,309 memoranda, outcry from the civil society, scientific community, forest officers and many states rejecting the Bill. The JPC accepted all its provisions, even though it had no independent scientific advisor with expertise in forestry, wildlife conservation and forest laws to go through and vet the information submitted by MoEF and advise it on the veracity of submissions made by MoEF. 

This has resulted in a highly dangerous amended Act, which lacks clarity, has loose or no definitions, sweeping exemptions which are not based on empirical data or sound scientific evidence, contrary statements, contradictions of intent and clauses.

RS: Your petition makes the point that this amendment restricts the Godavarman ruling. Can you elaborate on how this is being done?

PS: We chose to file a PIL because we believe the 2023 amendment will radically undermine India’s decades-old forest governance regime built around implementation of the FCA 1980, including the Godavarman judgement. The amended Act significantly reduces the scope of the FCA by curtailing the definition of forest lands, stripping the protection afforded under the principal Act to Unclassed Forest Areas, which is a large chunk of forest land in India.

The amendment will permit unrestricted destruction and privatisation of forests, allowing mega-projects with far-reaching negative impacts on the environment causing permanent and irreversible damage. India is one of the most vulnerable countries to impacts of climate change, and threatening its ecological security will worsen the country’s adaptive capacity. Significantly, it is now established that the carbon sequestration potential of natural forests is 40 times greater as compared to plantations, and therefore we cannot afford to lose our natural carbon sinks.

The 2023 Amendment Act violates the Constitution and established principles of Indian environmental jurisprudence, including the principles of non-regression, precaution and inter-generational equity and the public trust doctrine. The amended law excessively delegates powers to the executive, and its definition of forest land amounts to an impermissible overruling of a Supreme Court judgement.

It is evident that the MoEFCC misled the JPC and submitted false information. 

RS: Why do you say so?

PS: The MoEF & CC informed the JPC that all forest lands will come under the purview of the amended Act based on State Expert Committee (SEC) reports submitted to the Supreme Court as per the Godavarman judgement, but it is not known if all states have constituted such committees and submitted the SEC reports. 

Further, no ground truthing, surveys and demarcation of such forest lands have taken place in the field as evident from the Kerala SEC report and, therefore, even after 27 years, the full extent of forest lands have not been identified and demarcated. These SEC reports are not in the public domain and have not even been collated by the Forest Survey of India biannual report. It is astonishing how [we are being told that] forest lands can be identified and protected per the FCAA, when the SECs have either not been formed in all states or submitted their report to the Supreme Court. 

Ground surveys, and identification of all types of forest lands, notified, recorded, unclassed, deemed forests, and forests by their dictionary meaning, State-wise, need to be collated. Making sweeping changes in the FCA, which has been the cornerstone for conservation, based on inadequate data and hypothesis is a sure shot way to ecological disaster.

Exemptions of one hectare along roadsides and railways, five hectares in LWE (Left Wing Extremism) areas for infrastructure, 10 ha anywhere in the country for security-related infrastructure, and blanket exemptions for scoping studies, will result in the diversion of forest land, and without any cumulative ceiling being prescribed across the country, it will pockmark our forests with cancerously growing deforested ‘islands’ and fragment them, causing enormous ecological loss.

Opening forestlands for non-forest use will lead to shrinking, fragmentation and degradation of wildlife habitats, loss of human life, livelihoods, and tremendous loss of crops and ecosystem services.

RS: Could you highlight some more effects of the FCAA 2023?

PS: Forest clearance is no longer required under the FCA for forest land within 100 km of international borders for defence or security related projects. India’s 15,100 km international terrestrial borders include entire northeast states, such as 90% of Nagaland, the whole of Meghalaya, Tripura and Mizoram, and a substantial part of Assam. It means there will be no regulatory oversight, no safeguards or Environmental Impact Assessments and thereby we would lose some of the richest forests in India. 

No defence project, especially along the international border has been rejected or delayed till date. Where is the data submitted by MoEF to the JPC that there were rejections or delays caused by scrutiny of the FCA? These are anecdotal claims and suppositions not backed by hard data based on which drastic changes are being made to our ecological security. Defence security and ecological security are not exclusive to each other.

RS: Your petition highlights the historical reason why the FCA 1980 was passed. In the 30 preceding years, India had lost 4.2 million hectares of forest last. But since 1980, the loss was reduced to 1.5 million hectares. So why have these amendments been cleared, especially against expert advice?

PS: Though everyone speaks the language of conservation, averting climate change, and other internationally accepted jargon, greed has its own language. Amassing wealth, power, position while speaking the language of conservation has its own benefits. Doublespeak is a language which has the greatest currency today.

RS: Your petition highlights how the already existing regulatory mechanisms such as the Forest Advisory Committee and the Regional Empowered Committees that evaluate every application for diversion of forest land are hardly functioning. Doesn’t this reflect badly on MoEF and its large cadre of forest officers?

PS: Why only forest officers? These committees have IAS officers, politicians, scientists, NGOs and NGIs, too. Many forest officers have worked very hard for conservation and have done their job with sincerity and integrity. Most forest field staff are exemplary and the tough job they do with commitment and sacrifice is why our forests and biodiversity exist.

RS: But you do emphasise that government officials focus on compensatory afforestation, forgetting that natural forests are 40 times more efficient as carbon sinks.

PS: The amendment removes plantations from the FCA, assuming that people will start growing plantations on a large scale, thus helping our country to achieve its national targets of Net Zero emission by 2070, creating carbon sinks and improving livelihood of forest-dependent communities. This assumption is based on suppositions and anecdotes, not data.

Publicly available data reveals that plantations are failures causing huge losses to the exchequer while negating the massive social forestry programmes. More ominously, they will be used as compensatory afforestation lands offered up by project proponents in lieu of forest areas diverted for non-forestry activities.

RS: Even worse, will this amendment destroy our biodiversity given that India has more than 5,000 endemic species of plants and animals in the world?

PS: Frankly, who is concerned? It is all about looking and sounding politically correct. Attending conventions and making assurances which are not followed up on. We are destroying wildlife corridors, fragmenting habitats, and exacerbating human-wildlife conflict. We have just 5% to 6% of Protected Areas but we are busy diverting even this small area for infrastructure. We have reached the stage where we are talking about sterilising wild elephants to control their population! 

I have heard committed wildlifers saying it is fine to have linear infrastructure like roads through Protected Areas if we provide mitigatory measures such as overpasses and underpasses. But what about the destruction caused while the infrastructure is being constructed, and fragmenting and deteriorating our forests which cannot sustain biodiversity and wildlife? It is a known ecological fact supported by scientific findings and data that ecosystem services provided by intact forest are much greater than fragmented forests.

We are in a great hurry. Probably hurtling towards our destruction and taking along all our biodiversity and natural world to their end.

RS: This Bill was drafted by members of the forest service who are expected to protect our forests. Why then should they be party to a Bill that serves to destroy this key natural resource? Why did none of them protest on this amendment? 

PS: I do not have inside information and therefore can only make some informed guesses from my experiences. It is so easy to threaten an officer covertly and make them toe the line. We live under the fear of memos, explanations being called for, disciplinary action, punishment postings, falling from grace, getting our career stunted. To add to it, is greed—for power, position, plum postings, post-retirement government assignments—which I believe is a real bane and makes many “compliant” toward the end of their career. 

This amendment is the handiwork of many sectors, including forest officers. Therefore, it may not be fair to only pin-point just at them.

RS: You are known to have been a fiercely independent forest officer who was shunted off to the Ministry of Finance because of your disagreement over some decisions. Can you elaborate on that?

PS: I was DIG Wildlife from 2010 till 2012. I was a part of the NBWL [National Board for Wildlife] and its Standing Committee secretariat in the MoEF and was responsible for processing all cases to be placed before the Standing Committee. My strong comments on file for conservation fell foul with my seniors and the then Minister Jayanthi Natarajan. I was harassed and hounded to write pro-diversion comments, which I did not.

RS: This amendment is expected to destroy the livelihoods of hundreds of forest dependent communities once their land is taken over for defence installations or safari parks. This conflict was highlighted by Harsh Chauhan who resigned from the chairmanship of the National Commission on Scheduled Tribes in June this year only because he had demanded this amendment not be rushed through. Your comments?

PS: It is highly probable and will unfold if this amended Act is implemented.

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