“We are losing all the best land,” Chief Minister Neiphiu Rio emphasised during a recent discussion in the Nagaland Assembly, on September 11. His words capture the essence of an unfolding environmental challenge that has gripped India, a nation celebrated for its diverse landscapes and rich ecological heritage.
The recently introduced Forest (Conservation) Amendment Bill, 2023, has ignited a firestorm of concern among environmentalists and forest rights activists. As this legislation, proposing significant amendments to the Forest (Conservation) Act of 1980 (FCA), navigates the complex web of India’s legislative process, it raises crucial questions about the future of the nation’s forests.
The journey of the Forest (Conservation) Amendment Bill, 2023, has been marked by rapid progression. Introduced on March 29, this bill faced limited debate in the Lok Sabha before gaining approval in the Rajya Sabha on August 2. Before becoming law, the draft Forest (Conservation) Amendment Bill, 2023, was referred to a joint parliamentary committee (JPC). Despite receiving over 1,300 responses, including objections from environmentalists, state governments, and stakeholders, the JPC submitted its report on July 20 without proposing any changes. This swift legislative process has cast a shadow of doubt on whether the bill’s potential ramifications have been thoroughly considered.
State governments’ dissent
The Forest (Conservation) Amendment Bill, 2023, is anticipated to disproportionately impact northeastern states, potentially stripping them of protective measures under the existing Forest Conservation Act. The bill’s proposed provisions could weaken regulations safeguarding sensitive states like Meghalaya, Mizoram, Nagaland, Tripura, and Manipur from commercial exploitation.
Of particular concern is the bill’s silence on the 2006 Forest Rights Act, which protected the land ownership rights of tribal and forest-dwelling communities, limiting landholding to a maximum of 4 hectares. The omission of this provision has triggered anxiety and fear among tribal communities.
Notably, certain state governments, primarily in northeastern regions, have voiced opposition to specific clauses in the bill. They argue that a provision exempting forest clearance within 100 km of international borders could have far-reaching consequences, potentially opening ecologically crucial forest areas to land-use changes. Nagaland points out that this provision would exclude the entire state and highlights the ecological significance of the affected areas. Mizoram, too, opposes this provision as it would lead to the destruction of its forest and wildlife areas. Sikkim suggested reducing the exemption to 2 kilometers, Tripura recommended 10 kilometers, while Arunachal Pradesh suggested extending it to 150 kilometers. These diverse concerns underscore the need for a more tailored approach to the bill’s provisions.
Experts argue that the bill’s preamble suggests its intention to facilitate corporate interests and open forest lands for commercial purposes. Forest lands situated within 100 kilometers of international borders are earmarked for the construction of infrastructure pertaining to national security and importance. These areas are intended to be exempted from the jurisdiction of the existing Forest Conservation Act of 1980. Consequently, this exemption will have significant ramifications for entire states such as Mizoram, Nagaland, Manipur, and Tripura, as their geographical dimensions do not extend beyond approximately 100 kilometers from any point along the international border.
The precise language of the bill specifies the exclusion of “such forest land” located within a distance of one hundred kilometers along international borders or within the Line of Control or Line of Actual Control, as applicable. These areas are designated for the development of strategic linear projects with national significance and implications for national security.
Notably, the entirety of the compact states of Mizoram, Tripura, and Nagaland will fall within this category multiple times due to their encirclement by foreign nations. Mizoram, for instance, shares its eastern and western borders with Myanmar and Bangladesh, respectively. Tripura is encompassed by Bangladesh on all sides except for a section linking it to Assam, while Nagaland is bordered by Myanmar. Meghalaya, which shares its entire southern boundary with Bangladesh, will also be encompassed by the 100-kilometer provision. Similarly, Manipur, which shares an international border with Myanmar, will mostly fall within the 100-kilometer radius. In essence, a 100-kilometer radius from the international boundary encompasses the entire land area of these states.
Navigating the way ahead
The Forest (Conservation) Amendment Bill, 2023, outlines specific exemptions. It includes land declared as forest under the Indian Forest Act, 1927, or any other applicable law, as well as land recorded as forest in government records after October 25, 1980.
Reports have suggested India has a concerning history of forest loss; between 1951-52 and 1979-80, approximately 4.3 million hectares of forest land were officially diverted for non-forest purposes. This trend continued, with around nine million hectares of forests lost between 1975 and 1982. In 2021 alone, India lost a staggering 127,000 hectares of land according to Global Forest Watch.
As the Forest (Conservation) Amendment Bill, 2023, faces debate, the future of India’s forests hangs in the balance. Reports suggest that northeastern states are on the brink of a significant transformation, with forest lands potentially being converted into commercial plantations. The growth of oil palm cultivation in states like Nagaland, facilitated by agreements with major corporations, further underscores the gravity of this transformation.
Ironically, these converted areas may still bear the classification of forests under the criteria set by the Forest Survey of India. This classification encompasses lands exceeding 1 hectare with a tree canopy density of over 10 percent, encompassing tree orchards, bamboo groves, palm plantations, and more.
The Forest (Conservation) Amendment Act is poised to unlock the door to extensive commercial exploitation of the northeast’s forests, potentially replacing vast expanses of still relatively pristine woodlands with plantations. The bill’s potential to reshape landscapes and ecosystems in the name of development demands careful consideration and comprehensive deliberation.
In this critical juncture, as Chief Minister Neiphiu Rio aptly puts it, “We are losing all the best land.” His call for a reevaluation of maps and the expansion of Nagaland’s territorial reach to include foothill areas resonates with a broader sentiment. Across political lines, political parties in Nagaland, including the BJP, NCP, and NP, have united in support of resolutions opposing the Forest Conservation Act. While political discussions continue, the preservation of land remains a paramount concern, with a commitment to safeguard the “best land.”