The current Union Environment Minister recently engaged in a verbal tussle with a former Union Environment Minister over provisions of the Forest (Conservation) Rules, 2022.
What is the issue?
In June 2022, the Ministry of Environment Forests and Climate Change (MoEFCC) notified the Forest (Conservation) Rules, 2022, under the Forest Conservation Act, 1980. It had, thus, replaced the Forest (Conservation) Rules, 2003.
About the Forest Rights Act –
- The FCA is the principal legislation that regulates deforestation in the country.
- It prohibits the felling of forests for any “non-forestry” use without prior clearance by the central government.
- Thus, it creates an institutional mechanism, prescribing procedures for the orderly approval and handing over of forest land to user agencies for diversion for non-forestry purposes.
- These result in deforestation, ranging from “clear felling” to “selective felling” as required by the user agency.
- It is a brief legislation with only five sections —
- Section 1 defines the extent of coverage of the law.
- Section 2 restricts activities in forest areas and the rest deals with the creation of advisory committees, powers of rule-making and penalties.
- The clearance process includes seeking consent from local forest rights-holders and from wildlife authorities.
- The Centre is empowered to reject such requests or allow it with legally binding conditions.
The Forest (Conservation) Rules, 2022 and its compassion with the 2003 Rules –
- The new Rules affirm that “clear felling” is indeed the removal of all-natural vegetation from land of size 1 hectare (ha and) above, by felling, burning or uprooting.
- It excludes “selection felling” which was there in the 2003 Rules.
- Earlier, either the Environment Ministry’s regional office or the state would process all proposals to use forest land, depending on the extent of forest area to be diverted.
- The Ministry would then consider the advice of a committee set up for this purpose and decide on the proposal.
- However, this workflow was deemed cumbersome and the Ministry has now replaced it with a machinery consisting of a project screening committee, an integrated regional office, a few designated officers and an advisory committee at the Ministry.
- And they are all under the control of the forest bureaucracy.
- Tree plantation, dubbed “surrogate forests” in the new Rules, now comes under the section of “compensatory afforestation.”
- The new Rules state that compliance with the Forest Rights Act (FRA), 2006, is not at all required for the final approval for forest diversion, given by the Ministry.
- Earlier, the Ministry used to receive forest diversion proposals from agencies together with a submission that forest rights under the FRA.
- The FRA overrides the FCA and Rules can’t override or abrogate a law.
Objections about the new Rules –
- According to a former Union Environment Minister, the latest version of rule, allows forest land to be diverted to industry without settling questions of the rights of forest dwellers and tribals who resided on those lands.
- The FRA makes it mandatory to seek free, prior and informed consent of families who would be affected by such diversion of forest land.
- The new rules destroyed the very purpose of the FRA as once a forest clearance was granted (in this case by a Centre-constituted Forest Advisory Committee), no claims by forest dwellers and tribals would be recognised and settled.
- The State governments will be under even greater pressure from the Centre to accelerate the process of diversion of forest land.
The government’s response –
- The purpose of the updated rules was to streamline the approval process.
- Under the FRA, states are in charge of diverting forests for non-forestry uses and the Union Tribal Affairs Ministry regularly reviewed the implementation of the Act.
- Compliance with the FRA was an independent process that could be undertaken by states at any stage of the forest clearance process.
- The compliance with the FRA provisions is mentioned in the rules before states order land diversion. It had to be completed before granting approval for land diversion.
Expert view –
- Though permission from the Gram Sabha was not required to divert forest land in the past, its verdict had significant persuasive power. If there was strong opposition to a project, it could influence decisions to proceed with the diversion process.
- Now the State government must determine whether officials have settled the land titles and rights provided under the FRA at the site of the forest diversion. It is unnecessary to discuss whether the people are willing to give up their land.
- As a result, the new rules undermined the role of Gram Sabha, whose approval was required for any large-scale diversion that did not involve linear projects (linear projects are construction of roads, highways, railways and are exempt from Gram Sabha approvals).
- The ‘consent’ aspect is no longer present and the Gram Sabha has no power or say in deciding how to use the land.