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The Debate around the Forest Conservation Rules

  • Category
    Environment
  • Published
    22nd Jul, 2022

Context

There has been much opposition to the recently updated Forest Conservation Rules.

About

What are the Forest Conservation Rules?

  • The Forest Conservation Rules deal with the implementation of the Forest Conservation Act (FCA), 1980.
  • They prescribe the procedure to be followed for forest land to be diverted for non-forestry uses such as road construction, highway development, railway lines, and mining.

Objectives of the Rules

  • To protect forests and wildlife.
  • Put brakes on State governments’ attempts to hive off forest land for commercial projects.
  • Strive to increase the area under forests.

Highlights of the Rules

  • For forest land beyond five hectares, approval for diverting land must be given by the Central government.
  • This is via a specially constituted committee, called the Forest Advisory Committee (FAC) which examines –
    • If those who have requested forest land have made a convincing case for the upheaval of that specific parcel of land.
    • If they have a plan in place to ensure that the ensuing damage from the felling of trees in that area and denuding the local landscape will be minimal.
    • If the said piece of land doesn’t cause damage to wildlife habitat.
  • Once the FAC is convinced and approves or rejects a proposal, it is forwarded to the concerned State government.
  • The State government has to ensure that provisions of the Forest Right Act, 2006 are complied
  • The FAC approval also means that the future users of the land must provide compensatory land for afforestation and pay the net present value.

Forest Advisory Committee

  • It comes under the Ministry of Environment, Forests & Climate Change (MoEF&CC).
  • It considers questions on the diversion of forest land for non-forest uses such as mining, industrial projects, townships and advises the government on the issue of granting forest clearances.

What is the need for updating of Forest Conservation Rules?

After 2009, the Environment Ministry passed an order mandating that proposals would not be entertained by the FAC unless there was a letter from the State specifying the following,

a) The forest rights in the place had been “settled

b) The gram sabha, or the governing body in villages in the area, had given their written consent to the diversion of forest.

But the Ministry of Tribal Affairs frequently opposed the order and wanted to do away with the necessary consent from the Gram Sabha.

What is the change? /Benefits of the New Rules

  • The new rules formally codify the Ministry of Tribal Affairs demands.
  • It says that a project, once approved by the FAC, will then be passed on to the State authorities who will collect the compensatory fund and land, and process it for final approval.
  • The rules make a provision for private parties to cultivate plantations and sell them as land to companies that need to meet compensatory forestation targets.
  • This will help India increase forest cover as well as solve the problems of the States of not finding compensatory land within their jurisdiction.

HOW WILL THE NEW RULES AFFECT TRIBAL RIGHTS?

Done away with FRA compliance:

  • The Scheduled Tribes and Other Traditional Forest Dwellers (Recognition of Forest Rights) Act, 2006, popularly known as the Forest Rights Act, 2006, confers land and livelihood rights both individual and community to tribal, Dalit and other families living in forest areas. Under the law, FRA compliance is mandatory before clearance is accorded for diversion of forest land for non-forest purposes
  • The Forest (Conservation) Rules, 2022, delinks mandatory FRA compliance for seeking forest clearance for infrastructure projects and puts onus on states/UTs to ensure that it is complied with before the forest land is handed over to the project proponent   

Impacts fifth schedule:

  • The local representationof theAdivasis and OTFDs has been completely ignored in the Advisory Committee (Section 3) and Regional Empowered Committee (Section 6).
  • Under the new rules, these committees act as a connecting link between the state and Union government in the decision-making process
  • The non-representation of the Adivasis and OTFDs effectively captures the inclusive aspects of the decision-making process.
  • The formation of these committees stands in contradiction to the provisions of Fifth Scheduleof the Constitution wherein the Tribes Advisory Council (TAC) is the consultative forum, as referred by the Governor of the state, in the matters of tribal administration and development.

Negation of gram sabha role:

  • In the new rules, prior approval of the gram sabha is not mentioned signifying the nullification of its role. The term “survey” mentioned in the Section 2 of the new rulesfails to take into account the gram sabha or panchayat consent in the approval of the project.
  • This not only negates the provisions of the FRA, but also the Supreme Court’s historic judgements of Samatha vs State Of Andhra Pradesh and Ors (1997) and Orissa Mining Corporation v Ministry of Environment & Forest & Others (2013).
  • In both these cases, the top court has upheld the consent of the gram sabhaas the supremeauthority to decide whether to allow bauxite mining by Vedanta.

Other impacts on tribal rights:

  • The new rules allow the Union government to permit the clearing of a forest for a project before prior consent of the forest dwellers, as mandated under the 2006 Act.
  • The Advisory Committee, Regional Empowered Committee and the Project Screening Committees, as envisaged in the newly notified rules, violate the PESA provisions by giving primacy to these committees in place of local communities and gram sabha.
  • There is no representation from the Union Ministry of Tribal Affairs and Social Justice in these committees.
  • Another big omission in the new rules is the neglect of the “community ownership” of natural resources including the forest.

Criticism against the New Rules

  • There is an absence of wording on what happens to tribals and forest-dwelling communities whose land would be hived off for developmental work.
  • Once approved by the FAC, it will then be passed on to the State authorities who will collect the compensatory fund and land, and process it for final approval.
  • This doesn’t automatically imply the consent of the resident tribals and forest dwellers.
  • The new update is focused on the increase of the approval process and not its assessment.
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