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6th September 2023 (10 Topics)

Forest (Conservation) Act amendments and impacts on Northeast

Context

Recently, the Mizoram Assembly unanimously rejected the Forest (Conservation) Amendment Act, 2023, which permits forest land use near international borders without prior clearance, citing concerns for their people's rights and interests of Northeast.

What are the Key Provisions of the Forest (Conservation) Amendment Bill 2023?

  • Scope of the Act:
    • The Bill broadens the scope of the Act by inserting a Preamble.
    • The Act's name was changed to Van (Sanrakshan Evam Samvardhan) Adhiniyam, 1980 to reflect the potential of its provisions.
  • Applicability on Various Lands:
    • The Act, which was initially applied to notified forest land, was later extended to revenue forest land and lands recorded as forest in government records.
    • The amendments seek to streamline the application of the Act to recorded forest lands, private forest lands, plantations, etc.
  • Exemptions:
    • The Bill proposes certain exemptions to encourage afforestation and plantation outside forests.
    • These exemptions include strategic projects related to national security within 100 km of the International Borders, Line of Actual Control (LAC), Line of Control (LoC) etc.

Forest land in Northeast:

  • Most of India’s Northeast falls in the 100 km range.
  • More than half of the Northeast region is classified as Recorded Forest Area (RFA).
  • Within this category, 53% consists of unclassed forests, managed by individuals, clans, village councils, or communities and governed by customary practices. The rest is notified forest under the control of State Forest Departments.
  • RFA varies across Northeastern states, ranging from 34.21% in Assam to 82.31% in Sikkim.
  • Unclassed forests constitute a significant portion in several states, with the highest percentage in Nagaland at 97.29%.

What are the limitations of forest laws in Northeast India?

  • Special Constitutional Protections: Article 371A for Nagaland and Article 371G for Mizoram provide constitutional safeguards that prevent the application of certain parliamentary laws affecting customary laws, land ownership, and resources in these states without the approval of their Legislative Assemblies.
  • Nagaland's Limited Application: Nagaland extended the Forest (Conservation) Act (FCA) only to government forests and some wildlife sanctuaries, covering a small portion of its forested land.
  • Contradictory Notifications: There have been conflicting notifications regarding the applicability of the FCA in Nagaland.
  • FCA Applicability in Northeast: Apart from Nagaland and Mizoram, the FCA applies to other Northeastern states, including Meghalaya, Tripura, Assam, Manipur, Sikkim, and Arunachal Pradesh, with varying extents of forest land clearance under the FCA in each state.

Judicial Interventions:

  • Since 1980, the Forest (Conservation) Act (FCA) has facilitated the diversion of over a million hectares of forest land across India.
  • In 1996, the Supreme Court, in the Godavarman case, broadened the definition of "forest land" in the FCA.
    • It included not only areas recognized as forests in the dictionary sense but also any land recorded as forest in government records, regardless of ownership.
  • This expansion extended the FCA's scope to unclassed forests, which are recorded but not officially designated as forests.
  • The Supreme Court's 1996 ruling brought unclassed forests under the purview of the FCA, except in Nagaland, following the 1997 Home Ministry clarification.
  • Additionally, there are forests outside RFA that remain unrecorded or unsurveyed in various states, further complicating the forest land scenario.

Concerns associated:

  • FCA and Forest Rights conflict:
    • The Environment Ministry initially mandated compliance with the Forest Rights Act (FRA) and prior informed consent from the Gram Sabha before approving forest diversion proposals.
    • However, the 2022 Forest Conservation Rules shifted this compliance from the initial approval stage to later stages, potentially undermining forest rights.
  • Neglecting autonomy of States:
    • States can take proactive measures to ensure that FRA requirements are met before recommending forest diversion proposals.
    • This includes formulating and enforcing legal measures that prioritize the settlement of forest rights and Gram Sabha consent before any forest land is handed over for non-forest purposes.

Way forward:

  • The Ministry of Tribal Affairs can play a crucial role by issuing legally binding directives under the FRA or even enacting a separate law to address the recognition and settlement of forest rights when forests are diverted for other purposes, especially when forest-dwellers are relocated.
  • States and the Ministry of Tribal Affairs can simultaneously ensure tenurial security for forest-dwellers and promote forest conservation, striking a balance between development and environmental protection.

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