New Delhi: Parliament passed the Forest (Conservation) Amendment Bill 2023, with the Rajya Sabha approving it on Wednesday.
The Bill seeks to amend certain provisions under the Forest (Conservation) Act, 1980, to extend and exempt specific types of land from the Act’s applicability.
The Bill also known as “Jan Vishwas (Amendment of Provisions) Bill,2023” was passed by the Lok Sabha, last week through a voice vote as opposition members protested and raised slogans on the Manipur issue.
It also amends certain enactments for decriminalising and rationalising offences to further enhance trust-based governance for ease of living and doing business.
The legislation proposes to amend 183 provisions to be decriminalized in 42 Central Acts administered by 19 Ministries and Departments.
The Bill also converts several fines to penalties, meaning that court prosecution is not necessary to administer punishments and also removes imprisonment as a punishment for many offences. All offences under the Post Office Act, 1898 are being removed.
Replying to the discussion in Rajya Sabha, Union Environment Minister Bhupender Yadav said that, “It is very important to identify which is forest land and non-forest land for the purpose of development and this bill will help to clarify all the ambiguities”.
“The other purpose of this bill is to implement all those judgements given by the Supreme court for conservation of the forest” he said.
Before the 1996 Supreme Court judgement in T.N. Godavarman vs. Union of India and others, the Forest (Conservation) Act only applied to notified forest lands, not revenue forest areas and non-forestry use in the revenue forest areas was allowed through the government’s permissions.
After the judgment, the Act was applied to recorded forest areas, including those already used for non-forestry purposes.
This caused confusion about the Act’s applicability to plantations on private and government non-forest lands. Therefore, it is necessary to clarify the Act’s applicability to different types of lands.
Areas that are exempted for the preview of the Bill:
Such forest land situated alongside a rail line or a public road maintained by the Government, which provides access to a habitation, or to a rail, and roadside amenity up to a maximum size of 0.10 hectare.
The forest land which is situated within a distance of one hundred kilometers along international borders or Line of Control or Line of Actual Control, as the case may be, proposed to be used for construction of strategic linear projects of national importance and concerning national security.
Land up to ten hectares, proposed to be used for construction of security related infrastructure. Land as is proposed to be used for construction of defence related projects or a camp for paramilitary forces or public utility projects, as may be specified by the Central Government, the extent of which does not exceed five hectares in a Left Wing Extremism affected area as may be notified by the Central Government.
Tree plantation or reafforestation raised on lands that are not declared or notified as a forest in accordance with the provisions of the Indian Forest Act, 1927 or under any other law for the time being in force or has been recorded in Government record as forest, as on or after the 25th October, 1980.
Major concern of the Bill
Concerns are raised that the exemption of land from the purview of the Act near border areas for national security projects may adversely impact the forest cover and wildlife in the border area regions like Jammu & Kashmir and north-eastern states.
The Bill removes the mandatory central government approval for diversion of forests in certain cases. This means that decisions regarding the diversion of forest land would be taken by state governments and the UT administration only.
According to PRS, giving a blanket exemption for all security related projects may not be appropriate given the impact it may have on forest cover and biodiversity.