The controversial Forest (Conservation) Amendment Bill was passed on Wednesday by the Lok Sabha amidst objections from the opposition and experts. The bill proposes sweeping changes in forest law from 1980 enacted to prevent deforestation.
The Bill excludes two categories of land from the purview of the Act: land recorded as forest before October 25, 1980, but not notified as a forest, and land which changed from forest-use to non-forest-use before December 12, 1996.
The bill also proposes exemption to forest areas in 100 km area from borders, LAC [the Line of Actual Control with China], and LOC [Line of Control, the de facto India-Pakistan border in Jammu and Kashmir].
Union environment minister Bhupender Yadav during the debate said the development has stopped in certain Left-wing extremism (LWE)-affected areas due to certain restrictions in the current law.
The Bill introduced in Parliament in March 2023 was referred to a Joint Parliamentary Committee bypassing the Parliamentary Committee on science, technology, environment and forests chaired by Congress Member of Parliament and former Environment Minister Jairam Ramesh.
Despite several opposition and objection, the parliamentary joint committee accepted all changes to the law proposed by the Ministry. The Committee had only one opposition party member.
Interestingly, Bharatiya Janata Party MP Rajendra Agarwal, who headed the JPC, was presiding over the proceedings in Speaker Om Birla’s absence when the bill was discussed and passed.
Earlier this month, Over 100 former civil servants urged parliamentarians to not clear a proposed amendment, saying that it was “replete with flaws” and “totally misleading”. A few days ago, On July 18, around 400 ecologists, scientists, and naturalists wrote to Yadav and MP.
Experts have said the bill violates provisions of the Forest Rights Act as it does not clearly speak of prior informed consent of village councils on forest clearances. The environment ministry has insisted there was no violation.
The open letter from the collective of former bureaucrats, Constitutional Conduct Group, raises concern that the Bill seeks to overturn the Supreme Court judgment of 1996 in the Godavarman case which defined forests as any piece of land that resembles the dictionary meaning of forest.
The former bureaucrats also said that the “myopic bill” also poses a threat to flora and fauna, adding that India is one of only 17 megadiverse countries in the world with more than 5000 endemic species of plants and animals.