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Proposed changes in FCA to open gates for India's timber lobby, cause desertification

By Shankar Sharma*

Letter to the secretary, Ministry of Environment, Forests and Climate Change (MoEF&CC), Government of India, on the proposed amendments in the Forest (Conservation) Act, 1980:
Greetings from Sagar, Western Ghats, Karnataka!
I was shocked to learn the intention of the Government to bring amendments to Forest (Conservation) Act, 1980, notified for the information of the public and the state governments and calling for the comments/ suggestions on the proposed amendments within Oct,2021 vide notification ref cited above.
At a time when the planet is experiencing a climate emergency, any change in the law or practices which can lead to further loss of forest and vegetation cover should not even be considered as worthy of our examination.
In this regard I am appalled by the fact that our country has only 23% of the geographical area under forests but in reality we have only 11% in true sense of forests and the rest are of open rocky, desert, salty sea shores etc. declared as forests against the forest policy of 33% of the total area of the country to be under forests.
Thousands of hectares of original forest lands are being routinely diverted every year for various non-forestry purposes, including those forest lands within the legally Protected Areas (PAs), and there seems no indication of such forest land diversion stopping in the near future. In such a scenario of continuing abuse of forest wealth, it should be unthinkable to dilute any provision of law to protect forest cover.
The ministry should recognise the critical reasoning behind the global scientific community's recommendation to protect half the planet as the best way to fight climate change and biodiversity loss. The proposed amendment will in no way support such a recommendation, but on the contrary it clearly opposes such science based opinion, and can only help a few corporate houses in looting the forest wealth at enormous cost to the larger society.
The FCA, 1980 and the amendments to it in 1988 were with good intentions to save the existing forests from the diversion for non-forestry purposes for agriculture, housing, mining, roads, railways, military and other institutions, hydroelectricity and irrigation river valley developmental projects etc. by the State governments without taking appropriate action to protect the interest of the environment, ecology, biodiversity and wildlife of the country.
The Act also imposed restrictions to take permission of the Parliament for such de-reservation subjecting to raising compensatory afforestation elsewhere with the cost of the proponents equal to the area lost and also levy of NPV (Net Present Value) etc. This Act had put a break for all the releases of forests for the above purposes by the State governments all over India. 
In spite of it, a lot of forest areas were de-reserved for many government projects and for mining in the country. The compensatory afforestation is not compensating the forests lost due to many reasons. The virgin forests lost once are lost forever for the environment, ecology and the wildlife.
The FCA 1980 was the most feared Act so far in the minds of the bureaucracy since 1980. The prescription of the punishment for those who violate the provisions while taking decisions for allowing forests to be used for non-forestry purpose was a scare for the officers especially for the foresters (forests) and revenue (government lands containing forests) without subjecting for all the formalities within the Act, Rules and the guidelines issued from time to time by the Government of India.
This FCA ensured these wings of the executive not succumb to the pressures/influences of the other departments’ officers/ leaders/public to permit the forests/trees to be cut without subjecting them to the laws of the land.
Thus it saved a lot of forests/trees from diversion/cutting and forced creation of new forests in lieu of the forests lost by collecting compensation for the forests/trees lost and land for the forest land diverted for afforestation.
The judgment of the Hon’ble Supreme Court in the WP 202/1995 of TN Godavaraman Thirumulpad V/s Union of India and others was a landmark judgment in saving the forests as per the dictionary meaning of forests either in forests, govt waste lands or in private lands since 1996.
Forest Rights Act gave huge negative blow for conservation of forests and wildlife with provision to de-reserve forests
So many directions were issued by the MoEFCC with reference to the judgments on the impact assessments (IAs) concerned to the environment, forests and wildlife filed in the Hon’ble Supreme Court.
Even the forest encroachments were evicted on war footing in many states. In spite of it the forests are not safe since the development projects and the mining activities continued to get the forests de-notified for their use and caused loss of virgin forests/trees.
The proposed amendment to FCA 1980 can only lead to further degradation of whatever was left from the glorious forest wealth of 1947. At a time when the planet is experiencing climate emergency, and when the protection and enhancement of tropical forests and massive afforestation is considered to be critical to arrest the runaway climate change, the license to loot the sparsely remaining patches of forests through the proposed amendment can only be termed as suicidal for the entire country as well as humanity.
The Schedule Tribes and Other Forest Dwellers (Recognition of Forest Rights) Act (FRA), 2006 gave huge negative blow for the conservation of forests and the wildlife with provision to de-reserve the forests without subjecting them to the FCA. 
The release of reserved forests under FRA, caused for regularization of encroachments, release of forest lands affecting for degrading and fragmentation of the forests and conservation of wildlife very badly – the result “man-wild animals conflicts” all over India in the fringes of the forests/protected areas.
The biodiversity, ecology and environment of the country are being affected very badly. The nation is already facing the wrath of nature in the form of global warming, melting of snow caps in the Himalayas, rising sea level of the Bay of Bengal and the Arabian Sea, cyclones, unusual rains causing floods or droughts and pandemics etc.
The proposed amendments to the FCA 1980 will cut the arms of FCA in protecting the existing wood lots/government waste lands (revenue waste lands) and trees along highways, railways, military establishments and government institutions and also in urban areas for development of infrastructures.
It will open Pandora’s box for grant of revenue lands to the public by the Revenue Department officers to release openly for popularity and for other consideration to make the States’ land banks empty for all purposes in the future in addition to allowing for cutting and clearing of all trees growths in such lands throwing the wildlife in to open lands to aggravate the man-animals conflicts.
Further, it will open the gates for the timber lobby to go ahead with the Trees Preservation Act's provisions without subjecting it to FCA and compensatory plantations etc. to massacre the trees and flood the market for some time causing desertification.
The sudden flooding of timber to the market will gradually decline and will force import of timber with the double cost which is Rs 40,000 crore per annum in the present scenario in addition to causing untold mystery for the climate, ecology, environment and wildlife of the country.
The act of nullifying the powers given by the Hon’ble Supreme Court to the MoEFCC in the judgment of WP 202/1995 by amending the FCA by the MoEFCC is a heart burning retrogatory step to favour the infrastructure developing departments like highways, railways, irrigation, PWD, mining and urban department is very sad and it will be a curse for the conservation of the wildlife, biodiversity, climate and the people in the long run.
Under the circumstances explained above, I urge the government to not to dilute the FCA 1980 to the level of 1980s; and drop the other considerations for the amendments to nullify the powers given by the Hon'ble Supreme Court to the FCA, 1980 in the interest of the ecology, environment, climate, wildlife and the people since forests is only the source to protect all the life forms on the earth from the disasters.
Basing on the above facts, I strongly oppose the proposed amendments to the FCA, 1980.
Regards, Shankar Sharma
---
*Power and climate policy analyst

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