Lucknow: On July 26, 2023, the Lok Sabha passed the Forest (Conservation) Amendment Bill 2023, which exempts certain forest lands from the Forest (Conservation Act) 1980 (FCA), thus making it easier to strip these lands of forests and divert it for other purposes. This will impact at least 197,159 square kilometres (sq km) of forests--equivalent to three times the size of Sri Lanka (65,610 sq km)--an IndiaSpend analysis has found.

This is because these forests--nearly 28% of India’s forest cover--lie outside of the Recorded Forest Area (RFA), and will lose protection under the new amendment.

The Bill also exempts land 100 km from India’s borders from the FCA if they are being diverted for security-related projects, and land for eco-tourism projects. According to the Ministry of Home Affairs, India has 15,106.7 km of international border.

In a letter to environment minister Bhupender Yadav, several ecologists protested this amendment, and described the state of forests as “fragile” with only 21% of India’s land area covered by forests, of which only 12.37% is intact natural forest. “Given this already fragile state of India’s forests, and based on our diverse experiences from the ground, we have serious concerns regarding the Forest Conservation Amendment Bill, 2023,” the letter read.

IndiaSpend has reached out to Neelesh Kumar Sah, joint secretary, Mahendra Yadaw, under secretary and a consultant to the Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change, Dr S Annadurai, on their comments on the forest land that will lose protection post the amendment, and its repercussions for the environment. We will update the story when we receive a response.

What does the new amendment change

Under the Forest Conservation Act 1980 (FCA), all natural forests officially recorded as “forests” in government records were protected. In a 1996 Supreme Court judgement, the ambit of the Act was extended to include all forests falling under the dictionary definition of a forest to get deforestation under check. The new amendment exempts land not recorded as “forest” in government records as on or October 25, 1980, effectively nullifying this judgement.

This will impact 197,159 sq km (27.62%) out of India’s 713,789 sq km of forests, as we said. The most impacted states include Odisha with 19,470 sq km, Karnataka with 16,182 sq km, Maharashtra with 14,758 sq km, Chhattisgarh with 13,250 sq km and Madhya Pradesh with 12,721 sq km.

The unrecorded forest area constitutes 12,037 sq km (6.1%) of very dense forest, 67,326 sq km (34.14%) of moderately dense forest and 117,796 sq km (59.74%) of open forest.

The amendment will impact 19.51% of India’s dense and moderately dense forests.

Overall, India’s forest cover has increased by 0.21% (1,540 sq km) between 2019 and 2021, and by 2% between 2013 and 2021. Experts say this hides a pattern of deforestation in some parts of the country. India lacks comprehensive data on how the forest cover grew--whether in the form of monoculture plantations or diverse forests, use and ownership of land on which the forests are, while also lacking data on the fragmentation of forests, IndiaSpend reported in January 2022.

“Field surveys show that much of even this marginal increase in forest cover can be ascribed to commercial plantations, forest fragments and urban parks, that in no way can replace the ecological functions performed by intact natural forest,” the ecologists wrote in their letter.

The ecologists stated in their letter that they were most concerned about some of India’s most biodiverse hotspots found within the regions that the Bill will exempt. “Areas such as the Aravalli forests which will lose protection are a vital green lung for northern India and provide refuge to hundreds of species of birds, reptiles, mammals and amphibians, apart from serving critical hydrological and climatic modulation for the entire Delhi NCR.”

“Be it the Aravallis, the mangroves all along our coast, Western and Eastern Ghats, biodiversity hotspots of Northeast, our rich central Indian forests--a great part of these could no longer be considered ‘forest’ and can potentially be sold, diverted, cleared, exploited without any regulatory oversight, if the new amendment bill is passed,” said Yash Marwah, co-creator of Let India Breathe, a volunteer-run environment collective.

Ecologists are also concerned about the northeastern states as they have 21.68% of India’s very dense and moderately dense forests, according to the ISFR report 2021.

This is critical, as these areas have already lost forest cover over the recent years. Between 2019 and 2021, Arunachal Pradesh lost 257 sq km of forest cover, Manipur 249 sq km, Nagaland 235 sq km, Mizoram 186 sq km and Meghalaya 73 sq km.

Himachal Pradesh-based environmental activist Manshi Asher fears the diversion of forest land in the border areas is a recipe for environmental disasters. “The Bill is going to exempt all linear projects within 100 km of the international border areas and which are the border areas? The Himalayan states, which are already vulnerable to climate disasters.”

“For example the current disaster in the Beas valley was caused because of a linear project like highway four-laning and if you have something like four-laning in the high altitude of the greater Himalayan region it’s going to trigger landslides and floods.”

Asher believes that apart from the devastating impacts on climate, uncountable species of plants and animals are also under the risk of displacement and extinction. She spoke of a study conducted in Kinnaur district in Himachal Pradesh two years ago which showed how a hydropower project in the area affected the local tree species.

“We found that in all these areas, there was massive forest fragmentation and out of all the trees cut, the endangered species, which is the Chilgoza pine, was cut the most, followed by Deodar. They are both very niche species of trees and they cannot be planted, they never grow through plantation.”

The Bill also exempts land for eco-tourism projects. “As should be obvious, a zoo or safari park and a forest cannot be equated. One is a thriving ecosystem, interconnected in thousands of ways, many of which we are still only learning about. The other, a zoo, can be a place for ex-situ conservation or education but can never be a replacement for the former. The aim should be to construct world leading conservation centres in addition to giving our natural ecosystems the protection they need,” the ecologists wrote in their letter to the government.

Impact on forest-dwelling tribes

A photo from Uttarakhand asking for the scrapping of the amendment to the Forest Conservation Act

Apart from the amendment’s negative environmental implications, experts say it will also violate rights of forest-dwelling tribes, granted to them under the Forest Rights Act (FRA) of 2006. The FRA asks that local communities grant permission for diversion of forest land through their gram sabhas.

Many of the proposed amendments in the Bill adversely affect Scheduled Tribes (STs) and other Traditional Forest Dwellers (OTFDs) because if the land falls outside the scope of the FCA, it effectively eliminates the requirement of obtaining consent from the Gram Sabha for diversion of that land, the ecologists wrote. “Exempting such a large number of projects from the clearance process will mean that forest dwelling people will no longer be consulted. This is an extremely important way that forest dwelling people are given a voice.”

Over 50% of India’s tribal population lives in forests, according to a report by the National Institute of Rural Development and Panchayati Raj (NIRDPR).

A protest against the Forest Conservation Amendment Bill 2023 in rural Belgaon.

Alok Shukla of the Chhattisgarh Bachao Andolan, an alliance of over 20 organisations aimed at protecting Adivasi and farmers’ rights, believes that with the passing of the Bill, many tribes will face large-scale displacement. “India’s adivasi forest-dwelling areas will be severely impacted by this Bill. This Bill is a way to exclude the community from the process, it will severely affect their livelihood and will negatively impact the symbiotic relationship the tribes have with the forests,” he said.

“We need to realise that forests are not a commodity, forest is a way of life which is intrinsically connected to their culture. With this Bill we are taking away their rights from them.”

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