Forest Conservation (Amendment) Bill Clears Lok Sabha Amid Protests and Concerns
The Forest Conservation (Amendment) Bill, aimed at introducing exemptions for construction on forestland, was successfully passed in the Lok Sabha on Wednesday, despite facing concerns and protests from the opposition.
The passage of the bill came amidst a deadlock due to the opposition's demand for Prime Minister Narendra Modi's statement in the House regarding the Manipur violence.
In March, the bill had been referred to a Joint Parliamentary Committee (JPC), which sought public suggestions in May. Although the JPC approved all amendments proposed by the environment ministry, four opposition lawmakers on the committee expressed dissent by submitting notes of disagreement.
During the debate on the bill, Union Environment Minister Bhupender Yadav highlighted the country's international commitments regarding the climate crisis and Nationally Determined Contributions. While the first two goals had been achieved ahead of schedule, the third goal of creating an additional carbon sink of 2.5 to 3.0 billion tons of CO2 equivalent remained unfulfilled. To address this, the minister emphasized the importance of agroforestry and increasing tree cover, not just for India but for the entire world.
Yadav further argued that certain regions affected by Left-wing extremism (LWE) had experienced developmental stagnation due to existing restrictions in the law. The exemption of forest areas within a 100 km radius from borders, such as the Line of Actual Control (LAC) with China and the Line of Control (LOC) in Jammu and Kashmir, would facilitate the development of critical roads and strategic infrastructure essential for national security.
The bill's passing occurred despite opposition from around 400 ecologists, scientists, and naturalists, who had urged the government not to table the legislation. They emphasized the detrimental effects of climate change and environmental degradation, as evidenced by floods in northern India during the summer. These experts called for additional consultations with domain experts to protect India's rich biodiversity.
The bill specifically pertains to land declared or notified as forest under the Indian Forest Act, 1927, or any other law. It grants exemptions for the construction of strategic linear projects of national importance without requiring prior clearance. Notably, a significant portion of ecologically-fragile areas in the northeast falls under this category.
Opponents of the bill pointed out that the 100 km exemption from border areas could negatively impact ecologically sensitive regions in the northeast. They raised concerns about the preservation of traditional rights and customary rights to forests, especially for communities under the Sixth Schedule of the Constitution, governing tribal areas in Assam, Meghalaya, Tripura, and Mizoram.
The environment ministry, however, assured that the 100 km provision had been established in consultation with the defense ministry to meet defense organizations' requirements. It clarified that the proposed exemptions along international borders and in LWE areas would not be applicable to private entities.
Critics argued that the bill might infringe upon provisions of the Forest Rights Act, as it does not explicitly address the need for prior informed consent from village councils regarding forest clearances. Nevertheless, the environment ministry contended that there were no violations in this regard.