In the upcoming monsoon session, the government will table The Forest (Conservation) Amendment Bill in Lok Sabha. If it passes, the law will dramatically reduce protection to India’s forests—perhaps irreversibly. We explain why this bill matters—in as non-jargony language as possible.
Researched by: Rachel John & Aarthi Ramnath
First, what is a ‘forest’?
Forest, what forest? The definition of a forest varies widely from one country to another. But India does not have a single accepted definition of a ‘forest’. According to the union government, this task is left to states because:
An all-encompassing definition of 'forest' wasn't possible for India… because the country had 16 different kinds of forest. A tract of grassland in one State might qualify in one region as forest, but not in another.
So any land not already categorised as a ‘forest’ can be labelled as a state government decides.
How we got here: The colonial forest department existed primarily to help the British extract timber for its own purposes. After independence, forests were placed on the State list—giving them jurisdiction over both public and private forests—which left them free to clear forests for timber. But in 1976, forests were moved into the Concurrent list—giving the union government a role in administering them. The role of the Centre continued to grow over the decades—leading to the establishment of the ministry of environment and forests in the 1980s.
A landmark Supreme Court ruling: In 1996, the Supreme Court delivered a judgement that has shaped environmental law for twenty-odd years. The TN Godavarman Thirumulpad vs Union of India case started as a petition to stop illegal felling of trees—but turned into an overhaul of India’s forest policy—by redefining the word ‘forest’:
- The word “forest” must be understood according to its “dictionary meaning”—and any land that fits that definition should be protected.
- Any land that has ever been recorded as a forest in official documents will continue to be defined as a forest—even if it is now agricultural land.
The Court also took direct charge of administering the forest protection laws—which many critics viewed as overstepping its bounds. The ruling, however, helped stop the rampant and indiscriminate deforestation—especially in the northeast states.
The new forest ‘conservation’ bill
Here’s the broader purpose of the changes: to free forest land to meet development goals. And this is how the amendments achieve that goal.
The rationale: One of India’s climate goals is to ensure that at least 33% of land is under forest or green cover. We are currently at 22%. And we’ve primarily been ‘expanding’ forest land by counting “even commercial plantations or regions with trees of a certain canopy cover and density count as ‘forest’.” But this means it is harder to use these lands for development purposes.
Redefining forests, again: From here on out, the word ‘forest’ will only apply to land that has been declared or notified as a forest under the Indian Forest Act, 1927 or under any other law. Also: the government will only recognise forests that were recorded after 1980.
What this means: It removes the protection offered by the Supreme Court ruling to ‘unclassed’ forests—i.e that have not been formally notified. One example: The forests in Aarey colony in Mumbai. According to the latest forest survey, these unclassed forests account for 15% of what is considered India’s forest cover—nearly 120,000 sq km out of the total forest area of 7,75,288 sq km. The percentage is even higher in northeastern states: “97.2% of Nagaland’s, 88.2% of Meghalaya’s, 75.6% of Manipur’s, 53% of Arunachal Pradesh’s and 33.4% of Assam’s total forest area is categorised as unclassed forest.”
Also this: Great number of these ‘unclassed’ forests are important ecosystems—for wildlife and local communities. They’re, however, recorded under local names:
For instance, in Karnataka’s Kodagu district, out of a total district area of 4,097 sq. Km, only 1,439 sq. Km. is notified forests. Other, equally good forest patches in the district are classified as bane, paisari, devarkadu, urudve, uruguppe etc in the government records… Similarly, the Hesaraghatta grasslands in Bengaluru are not notified as forests; the sacred forest of Mangar Bani in Gurugram is recorded as ‘gair mumkin pahad’ and is awaiting recognition as forest by Haryana; large tracts of scrub lands in Western Rajasthan that have been managed by the local communities for generations, and one of the last habitats of the critically endangered Great Indian Bustard are yet to be also recognized as forest.
Under the new law, all of these can be razed for development.
Trading forests for trees: Under the current law, companies have to carry out “compensatory afforestation” if they use forest land for development. They have to grow plantations on non-forest land—so India can still meet its green cover goals:
A key condition for forest clearance is that a developer must carry out compensatory afforestation on equivalent non-forest land or, if non-forest land is not available, on degraded forest land twice the extent of the forest area diverted. Since land is always at a premium, this works as an effective check on the demand for forest land.
But thanks to the bill, all those ‘unclassed’ forests can now be used to raise ‘compensatory’ plantations: “Conservationists see this as a double whammy: losing unrecorded forests to plantations, which will subsequently help to divert recorded forests for projects.”
A free government pass: The bill gives a series of exemptions to infrastructure projects—which will not require clearance from the environment ministry. This includes land around railway lines and public roads—and also any project within 100 km of the Line of Control on the borders—for purposes of national security. Doesn’t sound like much except for this teeny data point: India’s border extends across 15,000 km. Experts point out this region “encompasses the entire northeast region of India and a majority of the Himalayan region.”
Indigenous communities: Clearing forest land currently requires the consent of the local Gram Sabha—made up of members of tribal and other indigenous communities. If their land is no longer considered a forest—because it is ‘unclassed’—then this requirement no longer applies.
Quote to note: As Jay Mazoomdaar writes in the Indian Express, trading forests for plantations is a terrible idea:
[F]orests are a lot more than a sum of trees. Unlike man-made plantations, natural forests perform a range of ecosystem services that are key to the survival and well-being of the millions of species that they support, and also provide direct livelihood and subsistence to crores of people.
The bottomline: The opposition has strongly opposed the bill—but the BJP has the numbers to push it though the Lok Sabha—and enough NDA allies to navigate the upper house. The moral of this story: it is never wise to give any government a brute majority so it can do what it wishes.
Mongabay looks at the definition of a forest in India—while Scroll maps the two-decade struggle to nail down that definition. For more on the bill, read The Print and Scroll. The Hindustan Times highlights the report put out by the Vidhi Centre for Legal Policy. You can also read the full report here.