Deforestation & Development: Deliberating the Forest (Conservation) Amendment Bill 2023

Author: Anusha Arif

The Lok Sabha has passed the Forest (Conservation) Amendment Bill 2023 despite concerns from different sections of ecologists, conservationists, and tribal groups in the country. The Bill, introduced in the Lok Sabha in March this year, amends the long-standing Forest (Conservation) Act 1980.
Earlier this month, all amendments proposed in the Amendment were cleared by the Joint Committee on the Forest [JPC]. Some important provisions of the Bill include an exemption of certain types of land from the purview of the Act, along with provisions for fast-tracking infrastructural and developmental projects of national importance. Furthermore, it provides for the use of forest land for non-forest purposes and activities such as silviculture, zoos, and safaris, as well as eco-tourism facilities at the discretion of the central government. These provisions aid the government’s intention to expand on the economic activities related to India’s forests while reinforcing its recently formulated National Strategy for Sustainable Tourism.

Concerns and Government Perspective

The Bill was passed amidst various concerns raised by different groups of environmentalists, forest fringe communities and state governments. The Bill had been strongly opposed by tribal employees’ associations who believed that the amendment would cause irreparable loss to tribespeople. Environment groups echoed concerns that the amendment incapacitates the forest clearance procedures either by sidelining forest rights for project approval or completely exempting projects from the procedure. This is likely to result in an increase in deforestation in the country, which is already dealing with a decrease in forest land cover despite government reports claiming otherwise.

In its report to the JPC, the environment ministry cleared some of the concerns and defended its move. One primary concern that the government sought to clarify was that the Amendment would dilute the Supreme Court’s landmark decision in T.N Godavarman Vs. Union of India, 1996. The SC’s order in the PIL has long been the directive for the country’s enforcement and implementation of forest conservation laws. In its decision, the SC had deeply examined the National Forest Policy and the Forest Conservation Act (FCA) 1980 and had widened the scope of the FCA to apply to any land recorded as forest irrespective of its ownership. However, the government clarified that there would be no dilution of the SC’s orders in the aforementioned as the provisions of the Act will apply to all forests, including unclassed forests recorded by the government or local forest department bodies. The Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change further submitted that the current Amendment Bill would clear some misconceptions arising out of the case on agroforestry and stabilise the concept to attract more people to take it up.

Another suggestion and concern raised by Members was the exemption of the category of private forests from the purview of the FCA after the amendment. While this step can benefit the landowners and farmers by incentivising them to plant more trees, it was felt that this step would prevent their land from being taken over for the development process or be facilitative of that which could hugely impact India’s climate change mitigation trajectory. The MoEF&CC defended section 4(2)(b), suggesting that the Bill encourages afforestation in private lands, which will clear the way for public participation in combating global issues such as carbon neutrality, enhancing the carbon sink and improving forest management. 
In its attempt to address concerns on the blanket exemptions for 100 km along international borders or projects like zoos, eco-tourism facilities, etc., in the Bill that could lead to unchecked exploitation of forest resources, the Ministry submitted that the proposed exemptions are only for specific linear projects of strategic importance concerning national security to be identified by the Central Government and will not be available for private entities.

Push for Private Investment

However, the push for private investment in green financing is reflected in other timely steps alongside the Bill by the government agencies such as the Securities and Exchange Board of India (SEBI), introducing sub-categories for Environment, Social and Governance (ESG). SEBI recently introduced a separate sub-category for ESG investments under the thematic category of equity schemes. Through this, a system for mutual funds which permits only one ESG scheme to run can expand to launch any project under the ESG category with one of the strategies such as Exclusion, Integration, Best-in-class & Positive Screening, Impact investing, sustainable objectives and transition or transition-related investments. The new category has been introduced at the suggestion of an ESG committee to improve transparency in processes with a particular focus on mitigating the risks of mis-selling [1] and greenwashing. On the other hand, the Bill, which also opens up the use of forest land for non-forest purposes, could bring in private investment to set up activities as suggested by the government for eco-tourism, etc.
Increasing private investment and enhancing green financing could increase the momentum of climate change mitigation outcomes by incentivising the sector.

As is evident, the government’s intention with this Bill is to prioritise and fasten developmental processes of national importance. However, the concerns of the forest sector over conservation efforts are reasonable amid the ongoing climate crisis. The forest-dependent and tribal communities who have continued to fight a battle for their rights over the years (even with the Forest Rights Act [FRA] 2006 adopting a rights-based approach) are often faced with the threat of exclusion and forced eviction. They now face an enhanced threat with increasing privatisation.
Finding a harmonious balance between the interests of forest-dependent communities and tribal groups and the imperative for development projects is a complex task yet essential for inclusive, sustainable development. At this stage, the government should address the concerns more transparently through inclusive dialogue and engaging all stakeholders over the Forest (Conservation) Amendment Bill and build a comprehensive policy to support the Bill in its ambition without compromising the interests of other vulnerable groups. 
[1] A widely used term along with greenwashing. With reference to investments it can mean investments that are either based on fraudulent claims or misleading information about the portfolio.