The Parliament on 20 July, 2023 brought forward the Bill to amend sections of the Indian Forest (Conservation) Act of 1980 in the form of the much contested Forest (Conservation) Amendment Bill 2023, over-riding objections from the several quarters on certain provisions that critics say will dilute existing safeguards and endanger biodiversity sensitive areas particularly along the international borders.
The first and foremost objection to the Bill is the argument that the Bill will dilute the 1996 Supreme Court’s judgment in the much hyped Godavarman case that extended protection to wide tracts of forests, even if they were not recorded as forests.
The existing provisions for according central protection to vast tracts of ‘deemed forests’, that is, forests not officially recorded as forests, could disintegrate paving the way for commercial units to take up multiple activities like commercial plantations, resource extraction, extensive tourism and resorts which could compromise the integrity of geographically and biodiversity sensitive areas – such as which were witnessed in the disasters that struck the sub-Himalayan state of Himachal Pradesh earlier this month, lashed by extreme weather conditions and induced by human-influenced activities.
The other major argument is that in geographically and biodiversity sensitive areas, such as in Ladakh and the Northeast, the Bill seeks to allow provision with mandate of no ‘forest clearance’ needed for centrally-sponsored development projects such as the construction of highways, railways and hydel power projects within 100 kilometer of the International Borders or the Line of Control, and allotting land for defense purposes.
In the Northeast, most of the States would come under this 100-km definition, thus having high potential of affecting ‘forest lands’ that are not under the Protected Areas Network. For instance, in Manipur a 100-km radius would cover well up to the central valley areas, leaving most of the hill areas vulnerable to this potential threat. Parts of Senapati, Ukhrul, Kamjong, Chandel, Tengnoupal and Churachandpur districts could go under the hammer.
James Longley in his Deforestation Report (2023) ranked India as the second worst affected country in the world with a massive loss of 668,400 hectares of forestry between 2015-2020, with Brazil in the lead with an enormous loss of 1,695,700 hectares of forestry and Indonesia at third position with a loss of 650,000 hectares in this same period.
Deforestation in a sense is assumed as malice in most parts of the world, and Manipur is not an exception. The major portion of the land surface in the State had experienced intensive deforestation in these past decades due to several factors like extensive illegal timber logging, shifting cultivation and unauthorised plantations like poppy over vast areas, extension of settlements, development projects like highway expansion, railways, and defence establishments.
The 30×30 agenda of the United Nations seeks to promote activities for forest ecosystem restoration to meet deadlines on climate related concerns. On this note, India too is pushing for achieving maximum forest area coverage by the target year 2030. The proposed amendments to the existing Forest (Conservation) Act, 1980, therefore, is seen as contradictory to the national and global efforts in achieving the 30×30 agenda.
It may be recalled that on 3rd June last year, the Supreme Court of India had ordered a mandatory one kilometer Buffer Zone for protected areas to act as ‘shock absorber’. The apex court made it clear that commercial activity “within the national park and wildlife sanctuary and within an area of one kilometer from the boundary of such national park and wildlife sanctuary shall not be permissible”.
The order did rake up controversies of sorts. The general criticism was that, “A villager who is desirous to reconstruct his house would not be permitted. If the government decides to construct schools, dispensaries, anganwadis, village stores, water tanks and other basic structures for improvement of the life of the villagers, the same would not be permitted. State or Central Government would be prevented from constructing roads. It will be impossible for forest departments to conduct eco-development activities around national parks and sanctuaries. It would also affect projects of national and strategic importance like construction of national highways, railways, and defense-related infrastructure”.
Manipur, like the other Himalayan states in the Northeast, has limited geographical space and there is already a good amount of tension on ground related to concerns on land and the rights of access to resource use. The PA network already limits access for local people in these protected areas. The conversion of forest lands that are outside of the PA network to non-forest use for government projects and defense establishments could further displace local communities from their traditional land holdings.
The concern is further translated to worries on a continued conflicts-of-interest amongst local communities, and between communities and the State, as rights to land and the rights to resource use become limited for the local people under pressure from policies such as the proposed amendments to the FCA 1980 affecting forest lands that are outside of the PA network.
For most Indigenous peoples and local communities in Manipur, as in almost all States in the Northeast, forest lands outside of the PA network are traditionally viewed as under community ownership and governed under their respective customary laws and regulations. The proposed amendments to the FCA 1980 could raise objections from the IPLCs in the region, leading to protracted tension over land which could be adding fuel to the already high-voltage tensions on ground over land issues.
In order to avoid conflicts in later time, there has to be safeguards for all the Himalayan States in the Northeast vis-a-vis the proposed amendments to the FCA 1980. The region looks forward to development but not that categorization of development that displaces IPLCs from their territories of life.
(The writer looks at environmental stories through the journalistic lens. He can be reached at [email protected])