Skip to main content

India's conservation law 'undermines' local communities, promotes non-forest activity

By Dr Rajitha Venugopal, Tvishi Rajesh* 

Within a gap of three months after the massive eco-disasters in Himachal Pradesh and Uttarakhand, our newsfeed began filling with alarming photos and videos of the flash floods in Sikkim. Recent global climate talks and celebrations of environmental awareness days and wildlife weeks in the last few years have revolved around themes such as ecosystem restoration, sustainability, and forests and livelihoods. 
These indicate that wildlife, ecosystems, livelihoods, people, and the planet co-exist in a symbiotic relationship. Hence, it is important to examine how the 2023 amendment to the Forest Conservation Act (FCA) would impact wildlife, ecosystems, and local communities.
The FCA amendment stresses the “need to fast-track projects of strategic importance, national security, and public utility within 100 km of international borders.” It departs from its predecessor, the FCA, 1980 in its expanded scope to complement the “ecological, strategic, and economic aspirations” of the country. The amended FCA aims to use lands and forest areas for non-forestry uses, including infrastructural development, tourism, and strategic projects.
An overview of acts passed between 1980 and 2023 reveals the inherent contradictions within the amendment: the Wildlife Protection Act, 1972 (setting boundaries of national parks), the Environment Protection Act, 1986 (for curbing environmental pollution), the definition of Eco-Sensitive Zones (ESZ) in 2002 (regulating development activities around protected areas), and the Forest Rights Act (FRA), 2006 (providing community forest resource rights to tribal communities and decision-making power to gram sabhas).
The amendment undermines the provisions of all the acts mentioned above, removes the powers of the local communities, and promotes development around protected areas. It allows for the creation of zoos and safaris in these areas, which would entail the commercialization of wildlife and forests. The ensuing real estate development would be a stressor to both wildlife and local communities.
The amended act refers to India’s Nationally Determined Contributions (NDC) from the Paris Agreement. One of these targets is to create an additional carbon sink of 2.5–3 billion tonnes of CO2e by 2030. In 2016, India had a net carbon sink of only 308 million tonnes of CO2e and the country’s current progress towards its NDC goals has been rated as highly insufficient.
In 2021, the State of India’s Forest Report announced that the national forest cover had increased by 1540 sq km. Lauded as a big achievement, does this narrative aim to suggest the existence of more forests expendable for development? A closer examination of the data shows that the increase in forest cover is because of the redefinition of forest to include open forest, agricultural areas, and private plantations. While they serve as carbon sinks, there is an actual loss of dense forest, and many of these areas are climate hotspots.
The amendment states that forest areas used for any project of national importance will not be covered under the provisions of the act, i.e., will not be legally protected. However, what qualifies as “national importance” is not defined, is open to interpretation, and hence can be misused to provide clearance to large projects that would destroy huge tracts of forest land. Moreover, land use change from forest to non-forest can be done now without forest clearance under the FCA.
The amendment also freely allows commercial plantations on what was previously legally forest land. This is already happening in parts of the Northeast, where there has been a strong push for palm oil plantations. Large government subsidies in these biodiversity hotspot areas have pushed states such as Nagaland to sign MoUs with corporate groups such as Patanjali and Godrej Agrovet. The amendment to the Biological Diversity Act (2002) was passed just before the amendment to the FCA.
Following this, the National Biodiversity Authority negotiates on behalf of the local communities for terms of benefit sharing for the use of their medicinal plants, products, etc., and AYUSH practitioners have been exempted from sharing benefits with local communities altogether. The Environmental Clearance obtaining process under EIA has also been streamlined. Now, the process is much faster, and the duration for public comments and suggestions has been reduced.
Connecting all the dots, one wonders about the purpose of “conserving” the forests through such means, whose interests it serves, and at whose expense. The amendment then appears as a culmination of systematically planned activities building up to its now-stated goal of meeting the nation’s “ecological, strategic, and economic aspirations”.
Post-independent India has witnessed development projects that promised the nation’s prosperity, but they were exclusive and inequitable. They have resulted in a disproportionate sharing of benefits and risks. Invariably, risks and losses are worst borne by tribals living in ecologically vulnerable locations. The displacement caused by the Narmada projects has been a long-standing one for decades. The excessive rains, floods, and landslides in Himachal Pradesh, Uttarakhand, and Sikkim are the latest wake-up call. While these states’ economies thrive on tourism, most of the losses incurred are accounted for in terms of infrastructure and people’s lives and livelihoods.
Prof Venugopal

The impact on biodiversity, wildlife, and ecosystems is among the least discussed. Tourism and development in these regions are raised on the quicksand of a deeply wounded ecosystem and biodiversity. This could happen to any part of the country. Therefore, amendments to the FCA aimed at a fast-track and indiscrete development model can only entail more damage to regions, people, biodiversity, and the resources of the nation, thereby toppling the development bandwagon itself.
---
*Prof. Rajitha Venugopal is with the Faculty of Literary & Cultural Studies, FLAME University; Tvishi Rajesh is Undergraduate Student, FLAME University

Comments

TRENDING

WHO move can 'enable' India to detain citizens, restrict freedom, control media

Counterview Desk  In an an open letter to Prime Minister Narendra Modi, with copies to concerned Cabinet ministers, bureaucrats and MPs,  health rights network  People’s Alliance for Public Health (PAPH alias JanSwasthya Morcha), has urged that India should not be a signatory to the World Health Organization ( WHO) Pandemic Agreement and Amendments to the  International Health Regulations (IHR) 2005  to be adopted at the 77th World Health Assembly in Geneva from 27th May to 1st June, 2024.

'Enough evidence': Covid vaccines impacted women's reproductive health

By Deepika*  In 2024, the news outlets have suddenly started reporting about covid vaccine side effects in a very extensive manner. Sadly, the damage is already done.

A Hindu alternative to Valentine's Day? 'Shiv-Parvati was first love marriage in Universe'

By Rajiv Shah*   The other day, I was searching on Google a quote on Maha Shivratri which I wanted to send to someone, a confirmed Shiv Bhakt, quite close to me -- with an underlying message to act positively instead of being negative. On top of the search, I chanced upon an article in, imagine!, a Nashik Corporation site which offered me something very unusual. 

Informal, outdoor workers 'excluded': Govt of India's excessive heat policies

Counterview Desk  Top civil rights network, National Alliance of People's Movements (NAPM), has demanded urgent government action to protect millions of outdoor workers from extreme heat and heatwaves, insisting declaration of heatwaves as climatic disaster.

'Uncertainty in Iran': Raisi brokered crucial Chabahar Port deal with India

By Pranjal Pandey*  Ebrahim Raisi, the Iranian President, and the country’s foreign minister were tragically found deceased on May 20, 2024, shortly after their helicopter crashed in foggy conditions. In response, Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei swiftly appointed a relatively unknown vice president as the interim leader.

Growing stream of pollution infecting homes, bodies in US, Vietnam

By Erica Cirino*  Louisiana’s “River Parishes,” located along the Mississippi River between New Orleans and Baton Rouge, shoulder some of the worst industry impacts in the United States. As a result, this region has acquired a grim reputation as “ Cancer Alley .” 

Desist from academic censorship, stop threatening scholars: Letter to ICMR

Counterview Desk  In a letter to the Indian Council of Medical Research (ICMR) director, the Universal Health Organisation (UHO) which consists of prominent health experts, has insisted that the Government of India’s top medical research agency should lead high quality research on vaccine safety and “desist from academic censorship”.