General Studies Paper 3

Context: Recently, the government introduced the Forest (Conservation) Amendment Bill, 2023 in Lok Sabha and proposed changes to the Forest (Conservation) Act, (FC) 1980.

  • The aim of the proposed changes is to build forest carbon stock by raising plantations. The Bill also seeks to make land available for compensatory afforestation.

What is the Background and Proposed Changes in FC Act, 1980?

  • Background:
    • After Independence,vast areas of forest land were designated as reserved and protected forests.
      • However, many forested areas were left out, and areas without any standing forests were included in‘forest’ lands.
    • In 1996, the Supreme Court suspended the felling of trees across the country, and ruled that the FC Act would apply to all land parcels that were either recorded as ‘forest’ or resembled the dictionary meaning of forest.
    • In June 2022, the government amended  the Forest Conservation Rules to propose a mechanism to allow developers to raise plantations “over land on which the (FC) Act is not applicable” and to swap such plots against subsequent requirements of compensatory afforestation.
  • Proposed Changes:
    • Preamble to the Act:
      • It proposes to insert a preamble to the Act to encompass the country’s rich tradition of preserving forests, their bio-diversity and tackling climate change challenges within its ambit.
    • Restrictions on Activities in Forest:
      • The Act restricts the de-reservation of forest or use of forest land for non-forest purposes. Such restrictions may be lifted with the prior approval of the central government. Non-forest purposes include use of land for cultivating horticultural crops or for any purpose other than reafforestation.
      • The Bill adds more activities to this list such as: (i) zoos and safaris under the Wild Life (Protection) Act, 1972 owned by the government or any authority, in forest areas other than protected areas, (ii) eco-tourism facilities, (iii) silvicultural operations (enhancing forest growth), and (iv) any other purpose specified by the central government.
    • Land under the Purview of the Act:
      • The Bill provides that two types of land will be under the purview of the Act:(i) land declared/notified as a forest under the Indian Forest Act, 1927 or under any other law, or (ii) land not covered in the first category but notified as a forest on or after October 25, 1980 in a government record.
      • Further, the Act will not apply to land changed from forest use to non-forest use on or before December 12, 1996 by any authority authorized by a state/UT.
    • Power to Issue Directions:
      • The Bill adds that the central government may issue directions for the implementation of the Act to any other authority/ organisation under or recognised by the centre, state, or union territory.
    • Exemptions:
      • It seeks to exempt all strategic linear projects of “national importance and concerning national security” within 100 km of international borders, the LAC, and the
      • The proposed amendment also includes exemptions for “security-related infrastructure” up to 10 hectares,and additional activities such as silvicultural operations, construction of zoos and wildlife safaris, eco-tourism facilities, and any other activities specified by the Central Government.
    • Issues:
      • With the amendments, all those forest lands which do not fall in  the reserved area but are available in government records before 1980 will not come under the purview of the Act.
        • This diverts away from the Supreme Court’s 1996 verdict which had ensured every forest mentioned in government records gets legal protection against 
      • Critics argue that the terms like ‘proposed’, ‘ecotourism facilities’, and ‘any other purposes’ can be exploited or misused for activities damaging forests and ecosystems in forest lands.
        • They also argue that plantations are a significant threat to Indian forests as they replace the natural ecosystems, affect soil quality, and particularly threaten the native biodiversity.
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