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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



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