The Ministry for Environment, Forests and Climate Change (MoEFCC) has released the amendments of the Forest Conservation Act, 1980. The parliament introduced the Forest Conservation Act (FCA) to conserve and protect forests and their resources. The Act was introduced to preserve forests from rapid deforestation. The purpose of the FCA is to promote forest as a common heritage and encourage sustainable forest development to meet present and future generations’ economic, environmental and social needs while giving consideration to other potential uses of the territory.
Forest Conservation Act (FCA) 1980
The FCA was implemented to regulate deforestation in the country and came into force on October 25, 1980. Indian Forest Act has been in power since 1927, it was designed to allow the British colonial government to control the cutting of timber and not aimed at preserving forests or regulating deforestation. Even though States have already notified forest land, the FCA made it necessary to get the Central government’s clearance for using forest land for non-forest purposes. The ‘non-forest purposes’ means the clearing forest land for the planting of tea, coffee, spices, rubber, palms, and medicinal plants.
An advisory committee was created to propose such re-classification. The clearance process includes permission from local forest rights-holders and wildlife authorities. The Centre has the power to reject clearance requests or allow them with legal conditions. In a decision made in 1996, the Supreme Court had expanded the authority of FCA to all areas considered a forest. Earlier, only lands that were specifically notified as forests were protected by the enforcement of the FCA.
Objectives of the Forest Conservation Act 1980
The main objectives of FCA to conserve the forests in India are:
- Protect the forests along with their flora and fauna and other diverse ecological elements while preserving the integrity and territory of the forests.
- Prevent the loss of forest biodiversity
- Prevent forest lands from being converted for agriculture, grazing or for any other commercial purposes and activities.
Features of the Forest Conservation Act 1980
The Forest Conservation Act of 1980 has the following features:
- The Act limits the state governments and other authorities to take decisions without permission from the central government.
- The FCA gives complete authority to the Central government to implement the objectives of the act.
- The Act charges penalties in case of violations of the provisions of FCA.
Reason for Amendment of FCA
The government aims to have at least 33% of geographical land be forest land. However, the forest land in India is only 22% and this led to the expansion of the notion of forest lands. The current definition of forests considers degraded lands, and private plantations are considered a forest. This made it difficult for state governments and private owners to utilise their own property for non-forestry purposes.
The pressure for forest land conversion has been coming from Railway and Road Ministries. Under the Act, any changes of forest land for any purpose, including assignment of leases, needs prior approval of the Centre.
The Proposed Amendments of FCA
Exemptions for Road and Railways: The MoEFCC proposed that all land obtained by the Railways and Roads Ministries before 1980 be exempted from the Act. These lands might have been taken for expansion, however, there is a growth of forests in these regions, and the government can not use the land for expansion. The Ministries does not require clearance for their projects, nor pay compensatory charges for construction.
Relaxation: It differentiates private owners whose lands belong to a state-specific Private Forests Act or come under the dictionary meaning of forest as specified in the 1996 Supreme Court order. The government proposes to permit the construction of buildings that include residential units up to 250 sq m as a one-time relaxation.
Defence and other projects: Defence projects near international borders are removed from forest clearance. Oil and natural gas extraction from forests will be permitted if technologies like Extended Reach Drilling are used. Strip plantations alongside roads under the Act are also exempted.
Concerns Regarding the Amendments
Legalizing private ownership of forests will facilitate corporate ownership of forests. The exclusion of forests on private land will lead to the deforestation of large areas of forests. Private residences and houses on private forests can lead to the fragmentation of forests. The amendments do not discuss the future of tribals and forest-dwelling communities over the cleared lands. Exemption for roads and railways on forest areas acquired before 1980 will be dangerous to forests and wildlife, especially elephants, tigers, lions and leopards.