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Activists across India use social media, ground campaign to oppose forest conservation Bill

By Our Representative 

In the backdrop of the Joint Parliamentary Committee giving its go ahead on the controversial Forest (Conservation) Amendment Bill 2023, citizens, forest and climate action groups across India have been begun holding on-ground demonstrations in Delhi and more than 16 states. An online nationwide tweetstorm with hashtags #SaveIndianForests and #ScrapForestConservationAmendmentBill2023 was trending at number 4 in all India trends on 24th of July with 11,000 plus tweets.
Many groups such as Climate Front India, Let India Breathe, Aravalli Bachao Citizens Movement, Save Mollem, United Conservation Movement, National Alliance of People’s Movements, Save Aarey group, Youth for Himalaya, Jagrit Adivasi Dalit Sangathan, Van Gujjar Tribal Yuva Sangathan, Yugma Collective, Area Sabha Association of Pune, Hasdeo Aranya Bachao Sangharsh Samiti, Fridays For Future India, Chhattisgarh Bachao Andolan, Warrior Moms, Friends of Earth (India) and others participated in the social media campaign along with many conservationists, ecologists and rural and urban citizens.
Their demand is, the “regressive” amendment Bill be scrapped in its current form. An email campaign addressed to leaders of political parties and members of parliament in the Lok Sabha and Rajya Sabha also took place.A letter signed by over 400 researchers, ecologists and students outlining the various concerns regarding the bill was sent to India’s Environment Minister.
Said Ruchith Asha Kamal, deputy director, Climate Front India, while staging a protest in Hyderabad, "While courts and reports keep pointing out the value of our forests, it's a fact that still we are too far from knowing exactly how much these ecosystems serve us. Still, the government goes on treating our forests as dispensable. Be it the Aravallis, the mangroves all along our coast, Western and Eastern Ghats, biodiversity hotspots of North-East, our rich Central Indian forests -- a great part of these could no longer be considered ‘forest’ and can potentially be sold, diverted, cleared, exploited without any regulatory oversight, if the new amendment bill is passed.”
“The proposed amendments severely compromise the constitutional mandate of the State (Article 48A) to safeguard forests, Article 51A (g) which places a duty on the citizens of India to protect and improve the natural environment and jeopardises access to information, public participation and access to justice, which are essential components of Rio Declaration 1992 and fundamental rights guaranteed under Article 21 of the Indian Constitution. As a young Indian, I want to know if the government has a plan for the millions of Indians who are already reeling under extreme climate events across the country and anxious about our future,” the activist added.
Stating that the amendment bill exempts large forest lands from the purview of Forest Conservation Act to fast track strategic and security related projects of national importance, Bhanu Tatak, co-founder, Indigenous Research and Advocacy Dibang, Arunachal Pradesh, said, “Exclusion of forests 100 km from the line of control from the ambit of FCA will lead to widespread, unrestricted construction of roads in the critical, invaluable forests along the international borders." 
The activist added, "Our border areas encompass some of the most biodiversity rich forests and protected areas in North East India, Himalayas, Western Ghats, Andaman & Nicobar islands, deserts, mangroves etc which are ecologically sensitive areas and a habitat for rich and endemic biodiversity including several endangered species such as the Red Panda, Snow Leopard, Kashmir Stag, Tibetan Antelope, Markhor, Hoolock Gibbons, and many other endemic species of flora and fauna.”
Continued Dibang, “These areas are also catchment of many lakes and rivers, destruction of which would have consequences for the water security of the country. Also, infrastructure projects involve activities such as blasting and excavation, creating tunnels, damming of water streams etc., which has significant and irreversible damage to the ecologically sensitive landscape of the Himalayan regions. Tribal communities of Arunachal and other North Eastern states have protected our forests for eons. We will not let India’s elected representatives destroy our ecological heritage.”
"Many of the proposed amendments adversely affect the protection accorded to Scheduled Tribes and other Traditional Forest Dwellers under Forest Rights Act because if the land falls outside the scope of Forest Conservation Act, it effectively eliminates the requirement of obtaining consent from the Gram Sabha for diversion of that land", said Narendra of Morga village while staging a demonstration in Hasdeo Aranya forest in Chhattisgarh.
He added, "the Forest Conservation Amendment Bill tries to nullify the role of Forest Rights Act 2006 which was enacted to address the historical justice that tribals had faced because of alienation from their lands. Now, the Forest Conservation Amendment Bill will be another historical injustice."
Alok Shukla of the Chhattisgarh Bachao Andolan stated, "The tribal and forest dwelling communities across the country have been fighting to protect their jal-jungle-zameen against corporate exploitation. The new Forest Conservation Amendment Bill is another attack on the legal and constitutional rights of adivasis guaranteed under the 5th Schedule, FRA and PESA Act. It is time that governments realised that forests are best conserved and protected by local communities that depend on them for their life, livelihood and identity."
“The FCA amendment also allows for unchecked tourism and fortress conservation, liberalising our forests and displacing thousands of people. Communities in Nagarhole, Kaziranga, Achanakmar, Gir, Rajaji and many other regions have been raising their voices, but this bill directly ignores these concerns and destroys the generational knowledge of forest protection and co-existance that forest dwelling and Adivasi communities hold”, Shukla added.
It is feared 9 lakh hectares of deemed forests could be lost for mining, allied industries, entertainment and eco-tourism in Western Ghats
Joseph Hoover, managing trustee of the United Conservation Movement working to protect the Western Ghats, noted, “Western Ghats is one of the eight biodiversity hotspots in the world. It has been ripped apart for linear hydro and mining projects. There is a disconcerting fear that 9 lakh hectares of deemed forests could be lost and mining, allied industries, entertainment and eco-tourism hubs could alter the landscape of the Western Ghats if the Forest Conservation Amendment Bill 2023 is passed. After citizens held peaceful demonstrations in Bengaluru, Jana Sangrama Parishath in association with United Conservation Movement held a press conference to announce that protests in all the districts of Karnataka will be organised to send a clear message to the government to not pass this ecologically destructive bill.”
Abhijit Prabhudesai, general secretary of Federation of Rainbow Warriors, pointed out, “The rural people of Goa are already in the midst of assaults by real estate, mining, tourism and industries and have been fighting for their survival. Since 46% of Goa's forests are not yet notified, only the Supreme Court interpretation of forests as per their dictionary meaning, which is proposed to be nullified by this amendment bill, has saved half of Goa’s forests till now. If this bill is passed, grassroot rural communities fighting to save their forests and land will lose their battles all over Goa. This cannot be allowed to happen.”
Said Malaika Mathew Chawla, ecologist and environment activist with the Save Mollem Team, said, “People of Goa are determined to fight this amendment bill tooth and nail as we cannot let Goa's indigenous communities, amazing wildlife, scarce drinking water resources and a rich 12000-year-old civilization be destroyed.”
According to Neelam Ahluwalia, founder member and trustee of the Aravalli Bachao Citizens Movement, “It is estimated that around 39,063 hectares of forests are under the sacred groves across India protected and managed as forests by local communities even though they are not currently notified as forests. FCA Amendment Bill will decimate such lands across the 690 km Aravalli range spread over 4 states and the rest of the country. Also, hugely at risk are 50,000 acres of Haryana Aravallis since these forests have not yet been notified as ‘deemed forests’.”
The activist added, “The Honourable Supreme Court has repeatedly directed the State of Haryana to identify forests as per dictionary meaning in Godavarman (1996) judgment but the government has failed to carry out this exercise. Citizens gathered in the Aravallis in Delhi, Gurugram in Haryana, Jawai area in the Pali district of Southern Rajasthan and protested from the site of the ‘Jan Haq in Jaipur city to show their solidarity with North West India’s lifeline for clean air, water security and barrier against desertification ravaged by illegal mining and encroachments.”
Samiksha Acharya from Warrior Moms who staged a demonstration in Kolkatta city with young children, said, “Kolkata is dealing with unprecedented heat waves and extreme weather conditions. As mothers, we are extremely concerned about the change in clauses of the Forest Conservation Act 1980 as this would mean a total degradation of climatic conditions in our city. Mangrove forests act like a barrier to cyclones coming from the Bay of Bengal. With this new amendment bill, mangrove forests are in danger of getting wiped out and there will be nothing left to counter the high-speed winds exposing the coastal areas of West Bengal to the mercy of storms. Widespread devastation will follow threatening the future of our young ones.”
Said Yash Agrawal from the Save Aarey movement, “In Maharashtra, the people of Pune staged a protest in front of the Forest office on SB Road to show their solidarity with the hills and riparian forests that surround their city, Mumbaikars gathered in Aarey forest and tribals got together in Chinchwadi village in Karjat to express their angst against the Forest Conservation Act Amendment Bill.”
Added Hema Chari Madabhushi from the Area Sabha Association of Pune, “With the increasing urban heat effect each year, as well as the daily struggle with ground water depletion and air pollution, citizens of Maharashtra cannot afford to lose any more of our forests. Let us not prioritise money and power over lives and sustainability. What is the point of having infrastructure when everything will get flooded and destroyed.”
Disha Ravi, a volunteer with the Fridays for Future India, a youth group which staged demonstrations in Lucknow and Bengaluru, asserted, "At a time when India is one of the most vulnerable countries in the world to climate change impacts, our natural forests and ecosystems are our only shield.”
The activist added, “As young people, we are extremely concerned about our future and oppose the new amendment bill as it will open large areas of forest land across India for commercialisation, infrastructure development, industrialisation negatively impacting wildlife corridors, people’s right to breathe and water security of the country in this time of increasing climate change, biodiversity loss, zoonotic diseases, air pollution and water stress. We urge our parliamentarians not to go against the wishes of the people and save the future of youth in this democracy we call India.”

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