Forest (Conservation) Amendment Act to come into force on December 1

Representational Image. Photo: iStock/ sarayut

New Delhi/Thiruvananthapuram: The Forest (Conservation) Amendment Bill, 2023, passed in Parliament on August 2 this year, will come into effect on December 1, according to a notification issued by the Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change (MoEF&CC).

Once the law becomes operative, the forest land converted to human habitats in Idukki and other places could be used for various other purposes.

The amendment has provisions to use forest land for non-forest purposes, including for linear infrastructure projects such as railway tracks, roads and for carrying out strategic constructions along the country's borders without prior permission.

Salient features
•Only those lands that were notified as "forests" under the Indian Forest Act, 1927, or Forest Conservation Act, 1980, or any other relevant law or were recorded as "forests" in official records will be acknowledged as ‘forests’.
•Infrastructure projects, such as roads and highways, could be constructed on forest land within 100 km of the country's border.
•State government should get the Centre's approval before allotting forest land to private or public institutions.
•De-reserved forest land that was not notified as "forest" before 1980, and forest land converted before December 12, 1996, have been exempted from the Conservation Act.
•Check-posts, fences, and bridges would be permitted on forest land.
•Zoological parks, jungle safari, and eco-tourism facilities could be established within the forests.

Counter arguments
•Relaxation of norms close to the national border could affect the forest wealth in the northeastern states.
•It will affect the rights of the tribespeople, besides diluting the Forest Conservation Act.
•Man-animal conflicts will increase if infrastructure development is allowed on forest land.

De-reserving forests
If any forest land has been converted for other purposes before December 12, 1996, based on the orders of the government, local authority or board, such land will not be considered forest land even if they are marked as forest land in revenue records.

This clause will help many settlers in Idukki, who have been denied land deeds (pattayam) for the past 67 years since their properties have been classified as forest land in revenue records. Once the new law becomes operative on December 1, such pieces of land could be allotted for other purposes without prior approval of the central government or a notification de-reserving the land.

The State Agriculture Department had issued orders handing over forest land to farmers in Wayanad, Idukki and Pathanamthitta districts for agricultural purposes as part of the central government's 'Grow More Food' campaign of 1948. It has been believed that title deeds of these "possession lands" could be issued once the law comes into force.

Additionally, the amendment to the Forest Conservation Act would expedite linear infrastructure development works since the forest land abutting such projects has been de-reserved.

Amendment to overcome court order
The central government decided to amend the Forest (Conservation) Act to overcome the Supreme Court's 1996 December verdict in the TN Godavarman Thirumulpad vs the Union of India and Others case. Thirumulpad had filed a writ in 1995 to protect the Nilgris forests from illegal timber operations.

The top court judged that a "forest" included all land recorded as such in government records as well as “deemed forests”, which satisfy the dictionary meaning of the word. The order prohibited granting land recorded as "forest" in government records without re-reserving it. A notification to this effect required the Centre's approval. Additionally, two acres should be handed over to the forest department concerned to de-reserve one acre, which practically made getting the centre's approval impossible.

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