August 4, 2023
BANGALURU – Changes to India’s forest conservation laws that the government says will help the country create carbon sinks and tackle climate change could instead drastically increase deforestation, environment groups have warned.
The Indian Parliament’s Lower House on July 16 passed a Bill that significantly amends India’s Forest Conservation Act of 1980. The Upper House passed it on Aug 2 amid objections from some opposition leaders.
The Act – enacted to prevent mass deforestation – mandates central government approval before any forest land can be used for non-forest purposes.
But the changes effectively redefine “forests” to exclude those not officially recognised by the government.
The amendments could lead to nearly 200,000 sq km of forest land – more than a quarter of India’s forests – losing their legal protection, according to a letter from over 400 ecologists submitted to the Environment Minister in July.
“Through much of our work, we have seen that these forests are extremely biodiverse and are vital habitats for thousands of non-human species… One could argue that this is not just an amendment but an entirely new Act,” the ecologists wrote in their letter to the minister.
The amendments also remove the requirement for government approval for any project related to national security within 100km of the country’s borders, signalling that security trumps environment protection in these areas.
The conservationists say this could endanger important and ecologically fragile Himalayan forests in states that share disputed borders with Pakistan and China.
Additionally, the amendments propose to encourage ecotourism by waiving clearance requirements for zoos, safaris “and other purposes” that the government may specify in the future.
Indigenous forest-dwelling groups say the changes ignore their legal right to deny consent to projects on forest lands.
Mr Bhupender Yadav, India’s Minister for Environment, Forests and Climate Change, said the primary objective of the Bill was to “increase the forest area of the country to meet our goals of conservation of forests, conservation of biodiversity and the challenges posed by climate change”.
Another stated objective was “to ensure development of vital security infrastructures, especially along the international border areas”.
These amendments come at a crucial point in India’s battle against climate change.
In 2022, the government identified several forests in the Himalayan and north-eastern regions as “climate change hot spots” with high variations in temperature and rainfall. In July, at least 100 people were killed and over a thousand displaced in northern India by severe flooding and landslides.
Environmentalists warn that these forests are at the greatest risk from the new amendments, and that allowing projects in these eco-sensitive zones to go ahead without first having a clear idea of their impact could precipitate further damage.
The ecologists’ letter to the Environment Minister bore this stark warning: “These natural ecosystems play a crucial role in buffering against increasingly unpredictable weather patterns caused by climate change.
“Their loss will result in greater displacement and heightened internal security risks.”
In a separate letter penned by 100 former civil servants to parliamentarians about the Bill, the writers warned: “This 100km stretch (that no longer requires government approval for national security-related deforestation projects) would cover all the north-eastern states and would include Sikkim and Uttarakhand – states that have the highest forest cover in the country, and are also biodiversity hot spots.”
The letter added that the loss of natural forests could not be compensated by growing plantations in other locations.
A parliamentary committee that examined the Bill had received numerous objections, including from state governments aligned with Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party.
The government of the north-eastern state of Mizoram, for instance, was wary of the catch-all term “national security”, noting that “any work in states having international borders can be termed by the working agencies as of national security”.
To these and several other objections, the environment ministry said that necessary clarifications would later be issued through executive guidelines.
Unusually, the amendments also give the Forest Conservation Act a new Hindi name: the Van (Sanrakshan Evam Samvardhan) Adhiniyam – or Forest (Conservation and Augmentation) Act.
The Environment Minister said the new name was “closer to the vocabulary of our people”, but several southern states, where people speaking other languages reside, have in recent years protested against what they describe as the imposition of Hindi on the country by the central government.