Forests are an extremely important part of the natural environment. They contribute to the wealth of the country in the form of a variety of forest produce including timber. They contribute to protecting the environment by absorbing carbon dioxide and releasing oxygen, which is so necessary for the survival of humanity. Forests help prevent landslides and floods. They help to prevent soil erosion and to produce the rich topsoil needed to grow plants and crops. Forests play an important role by capturing rainfall and releasing water vapor. They also filter out pollution and harmful chemicals, improving the quality of water available for human use.
The struggle for the preservation of forests is part of the struggle of the working class and masses of people to protect the human and natural environment from the destructive effects of the capitalist system.
For crores of forest dwellers, forests are their home as well as the source of their livelihood. The tribal peoples of our country and other forest dwellers have always protected the forests from degradation and destruction. On the other hand, the capitalist class, and the governments which serve that class, do not care about preserving the natural environment, despite words to the contrary. This is confirmed by the Forest (Conservation) Amendment Bill, 2023, which amends the Forest (Conservation) Act, 1980.
Farce of consultation
On August 1, the Rajya Sabha passed the Forest (Conservation) Amendment Bill, 2023. It was passed without any discussion in either house of parliament. The bill had earlier been introduced in the Lok Sabha on March 29 and referred to a Joint Parliamentary Committee (JPC) on the same day.
The JPC received over 1300 objections from different organisations and groups, to various proposed amendments. Many of these objections came from organisations fighting for the rights of tribal people and other forest dwellers. Objections also came from people and organisations concerned with protecting the natural environment. None of the objections were accepted. The JPC submitted its final report on July 20. The bill presented by the JPC was the same as was presented to the Lok Sabha in March. Six members of the JPC belonging to opposition parties are reported to have submitted dissenting notes.
The entire process of consultation with people and their organisations has been revealed to be nothing but a farce.
The amendments being made to the Forest Conservation Act of 1980 must be seen in the light of various developments related to forests, both before and after that law was enacted 43 years ago.
The majority of forests in our country are in regions populated by tribal peoples. Historically, the tribal peoples have safeguarded the forests which have been their homes as well as their source of livelihood.
The British colonialists promulgated the Indian Forest Act in 1927. This Act put all the forests of India as the property of the colonial state. It regarded the tribals and other forest people as interlopers in their own lands. The Indian Forest Act 1927 was aimed at ensuring levy on timber and other forest produce.
The Forest (Conservation) Act, 1980 was enacted in the light of the massive deforestation resulting from capitalist development since independence. It has been estimated that from 1951-1975, about four million hectares of forest land had been diverted for various non-forestry purposes.
The FCA 1980 imposed various restrictions on change of forest land to non-forest land. Following the promulgation of the FCA 1980, the forest land that has been officially diverted for non-forest purpose over the past 43 years is estimated at about 1 million hectares. This shows that there was some decline in the rate of destruction of the forest cover. The 2023 amendment reflects the interests of monopoly capitalists to lift various restrictions so as to step up the exploitation of forest lands for mining, hydroelectric projects, oil and gas exploration, timber, as well as real estate development.
The approach of the Forest Conservation Act 1980 to traditional forest dwellers was not different from the British colonialists. It did not consider that the traditional forest dwellers have rights over the forest. It regarded the forests as the property of the Indian state.
The tribal peoples and other forest peoples of our country have been waging a prolonged struggle for their livelihood and rights, including the right over forest produce. This struggle has enjoyed the support of progressive forces in our country. One result of this struggle has been the enactment of the Forest Rights Act of December 2006.
The Forest Rights Act formally recognised the claims of traditional forest dwellers to the forest as their home and source of livelihood. According to the Forest Rights Act, any diversion of forest land for non-forest purposes must have the approval of the local community.
Major amendments in 2023
The Forest Conservation Act has been renamed as Van (Sanrakshan Evam Samvardhan) Adhiniyam, which translates in English into Forest (protection and growth) Act.
Instead of protection and growth of forests, the opposite is being ensured through the amendments. The areas of applicability of the FCA 1980 have been greatly reduced.
It must be noted that on December 12, 1996, the Supreme Court gave a judgment which greatly extended the scope of the 1980 Act. It ruled that all forests, whether owned by private parties or government which were marked as forests in any government record would come under the act. It further ruled that conversion of forest land to non-forest use after the 1980 Act came into effect, and before December 12, 1996 would be considered illegal, unless it was authorized by the Central Government. Authorisation by state governments, or other bodies under the state would not be legal.
Following the 2023 amendments, the FCA will not be applicable to land converted by any government department from forest use to non-forest use after the 1980 Act came into operation and before December 12, 1996.
The amendment to the FCA 1980 now legalizes such conversions carried out before December 12, 1996 by state governments or other bodies under the state governments. Many such conversions have been carried out by state governments, which have handed over huge tracts of forests to capitalists for hydel projects, mining, timber extraction, etc.
The amendment also removes from the sphere of operation of the 1980 act, privately owned forests, and other forests which are not notified under the Indian Forest Act 1927 or the FCA 1980.
Another major amendment ensures that forest land within a distance of 100 km from India’s international borders is out of the purview of the FCA. This has been done citing the need to develop road and rail networks in border areas for strategic purposes (i.e. defence related). This amendment will take a large portion of dense forests of our country, which are in the border states of Kashmir, Himachal Pradesh, Uttarakhand, Sikkim, Assam, Arunachal Pradesh, Meghalaya, Nagaland, Tripura, Manipur and Mizoram out of the purview of the Act. Further, it will also affect the Sunderbans in West Bengal, which borders on Bangladesh.
Other amendments allow the Government to remove land along highways and railways passing through forests from the purview of the Act. Exploratory work for finding out presence of minerals, oil and gas, under the forest will be permitted. Under the name of eco-tourism, forests will be opened up for commercial activities. In the name of dealing with “Left wing extremism”, security forces can clear areas of forests and establish their camps. These will be used to put down the struggle of forest dwellers against attacks on their livelihood and for their traditional rights.
The Amendments to the Forest Conservation Act 1980 completely ignore the rights of forest dwellers over the forests they have inhabited. It has given the Central government the power to take over their lands, in the name of defence, internal security, eco tourism, exploration of mineral resources, etc.
In the hill states of Uttarakhand and Himachal Pradesh, there have been long standing movements of the people against the destruction of the natural environment. People have been protesting against the massive hydel projects and highway projects, as well as deforestation for timber. These projects have directly contributed to many disasters, including landslides and massive floods. The floods that have ravaged these states, as well as the states downstream like Punjab, Haryana, Delhi and Uttar Pradesh this year are a direct consequence of the destruction of the forests and natural environment by the capitalists.
In sum, the amendments to the FCA are in complete disregard of the struggle of the forest dwellers and masses of people in defence of their livelihood, and for the preservation of the natural environment. They are in the service of intensified exploitation of forests and the land beneath the forests by the capitalists.
|Box: India’s forests
Forest cover in the 140 hill districts of India is 40% of the total forest cover of the country.
Forest cover in the tribal districts of India is about 60% of the total forest cover of the country.
Forest cover in the North East region is 24% of the total forest cover of the country. It is 65% of the geographical area of this region.
(Note: The North East includes districts which are both hill districts as well as tribal districts).
Source: India State of the Forests Report 2021