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Lok Sabha passes the Forest (Conservation) Amendment Bill 2023

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Union Minister for Environment, Forest and Climate Change Shri Bhupender Yadav today moved the Forest (Conservation) Amendment Bill 2023 as reported by the Joint Committee of Parliament to be taken into consideration in Lok Sabha and subsequently requested the House to get the Bill passed. After deliberations and taking the views of Members of Parliaments, the Lok Sabha passed the Bill.

The Forest (Conservation) Act, 1980, is an important Central statute for the conservation of forests in the country. It provides that the de-reservation of reserved forests, use of forest land for non-forest purpose, assigning forest land by way of lease or otherwise to private entity and clearing of naturally grown trees for the purpose of reafforestation requires prior permission of the Central Government.

The applicability of the act in various types of lands has been dynamic i.e. initially provisions of the Act were being applied to the notified forest land only. Subsequently, after the Judgement dated 12.12.1996, the Act was made applicable to revenue forest land or in lands which were recorded as forest in government records and to areas which look like forest in their dictionary meaning. Many of such lands were already put to non-forestry use such as habitations, institutions, roads, etc. with the required approval of the competent authority. This situation resulted in different interpretations of the provisions of the Act with respect to their applicability specially in recorded forest lands, private forest lands, plantations, etc.

It has been observed that due to apprehensions that plantations on the lands of individuals and organisations can attract the FCA, the afforestation and plantation of trees outside forests is not getting desired impetus, which in turn is becoming a hindrance in enhancing green cover to fulfil the Nationally Determined Contribution targets of creating additional carbon sink of 2.5 to 3.0 billion tons of CO2 equivalent.

Besides this, the strategic and security related projects of national importance need to be fast-tracked to ensure development of vital security infrastructures, especially along the international border areas such as Line of Actual Control (LAC), Line of Control (LoC), as also in the notified LWE areas. Similarly, small establishments, habitations on the side of roads/railways also need to be facilitated by providing them access and connectivity to main arterial roads and other public utilities.

During the intervening period, after the promulgation of the Act, new challenges relating to ecological, social and environmental developments have emerged at national as well as international levels. For example mitigating the impact of climate change, achieving the national targets of Net Zero Emission by 2070, maintaining or enhancing the forest carbon stock, etc.  Therefore, to carry forward the country’s rich tradition of preserving forests and their bio-diversity and to tackle the climate change challenges, it is necessary to encompass such issues in the ambit of the Act.

Therefore, to achieve the country’s national as well as international commitment s of NDCs, carbon neutrality, eliminate the ambiguities and bring clarity about the applicability of the Act in various lands, promoting the plantation in non-forest land, enhancing the productivity of the forests, amendment has been proposed in the Act and the Forest (Conservation) Amendment Bill, 2023 has been moved by the Central Government.

The amendments passed by the Lok Sabha include insertion of a Preamble to broaden the scope of the Act, changing the name of the Act as Van (Sanrakshan Evam Samvardhan) Adhiniyam, 1980 so as to ensure that potential of its provisions is reflected in its name, clarifying the scope of applicability of the Act in various lands to eliminate ambiguities.

In addition to these amendment, certain exemptions, as proposed in the Bill, have also been passed by the Lok Sabha which include exemption of strategic projects concerning national security located within 100 km of distance from the International Borders, Line of Actual Control, Line of Control, 0.10 ha of forest land proposed to be provide connectivity to habitation and establishments located on the side of roads and railways, up to 10 ha of land proposed for security related infrastructure and up to 5 ha of forest land in Left Wing Extremism Affected Districts for public utility projects. All these exemptions considered in the Bill will be subject to such terms and conditions, including compensatory afforestation, mitigation Plans, etc., as will be specified by the Central Government.  

To bring uniformity, existing provisions of the Principal Act relating to assignment of forest land on lease to private entities has been extended to Government companies as well. The Bill also added new activities viz. infrastructure for frontline forest staff, ecotourism, zoo and safari into the array of forestry activities for the cause of conservation of forests.

Surveys and investigation in the forest areas will not be considered as a non-forestry activity in view of the fact that such activities are temporary in nature and involve no perceptible change in the land use. The Section 6 of the Bill empowering the Central Government to issue directions for the proper implementation of the Act, has also been passed by the Lok Sabha.

Elimination of ambiguities in the applicability of Act will facilitate the decisions making process on the proposals involving non-forestry use of forest land by the authorities. Exemption of such recorded forest land which have already been put to non-forestry use before 12.12.1996 by the orders of the competent authority can be used for taking benefits of various developmental schemes of the State as well as Central Government. 

Inclusion of more activities, as forestry activities in the Bill such as infrastructure for frontline will help to secure quick response to natural hazards in the forests. For want of enabling provisions in the Act, it is difficult to create such basic infrastructure in the forest area thereby affecting the forestry operations, regeneration activities, monitoring and supervision, prevention of forest fires, etc. These provisions will pave the way for better management of forest for improved productivity and flow of ecosystem goods and services will also add to mitigate the impact of climate change and conservation of forests.

Activities like establishment of Zoo and Safaris, etc. will be owned by Government and will be set up as per the Plan approved by the Central Zoo Authority outside the Protected Areas. Similarly, ecotourism, as per approved Working Plan or Wildlife Management Plan or Tiger Conservation Plan will be taken up in the forest areas.  Such facilities, besides sensitizing and generating awareness about the importance of protection and conservation of forest land and wildlife, will also add to the livelihood sources of local communities and thereby providing them opportunities to connect with the mainstream of development.  

The amendment proposed in the Bill as passed by the Lok Sabha will refurbish the spirit the Act for conservation and augmentation of forests. These amendments will act as a milestone in the enhancement of the productivity of forests, raising plantations outside forests and strengthening the regulatory mechanism besides catering to the livelihood aspirations of the local communities.

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