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Over 100 Former Civil Servants Raise Concern Over new Forest Conservation Bill

The former civil servants expressed concern about the FCA Amendment Bill's provisions, which allow forest land to be utilised for various non-forest purposes.

Delhi: Over 100 former civil servants, members of the Constitutional Conduct Group (CCG), have written a letter to the members of Parliament, expressing their deep concern with the Forest Conservation (Amendment) Bill, 2023. The group has raised apprehensions about both the content of the Bill and the process being followed for its passage.

The CCG letter states that the procedural handling of the Bill is problematic. According to the letter, the Bill should have been referred to the Parliamentary Committee on science, technology, environment, and forests, instead of being sent to a Select Committee, where the majority of members belong to the ruling party, potentially making the examination biased and unsatisfactory.

Among the 105 letter signatories expressing concern over the Forest Conservation (Amendment) Bill, 2023, notable names include Anita Agnihotri, former Secretary, Department of Social Justice Empowerment, GoI; Anand Arni, former Special Secretary, Cabinet Secretariat, GoI; Vappala Balachandran, former Special Secretary, Cabinet Secretariat, GoI; Nitin Desai, former Chief Economic Adviser, Ministry of Finance, GoI; Meena Gupta, former Secretary, Ministry of Environment & Forests, GoI; Ajai Kumar, former Director, Ministry of Agriculture, GoI; and G.K. Pillai, former Home Secretary, GoI. 

In the letter, the group highlights the historical significance of the Forest Conservation Act (FCA) of 1980, which was enacted to prevent deforestation. It regulated the diversion of forest lands, and in the 40 years since its enactment, only about 1.5 million hectares of forest land were diverted. However, in recent years, the diversion of forest lands has accelerated, with almost 90,000 hectares diverted for non-forest use between 2018-19 and 2022-23. The institutions meant to regulate and minimise this diversion, such as the Forest Advisory Committee and the Regional Empowered Committees, have proven to be ineffective.

The CCG letter expresses concern about the FCA Amendment Bill's provisions, which allow forest land, excluding protected areas, to be utilised for various non-forest purposes, including defence-related projects within 100 kilometres of India's borders, stretches of land alongside railway lines and highways, zoos, safaris, eco-tourism facilities, and silvicultural operations. The group is particularly worried about the provision that permits forest lands near the country's borders to be used for "strategic linear projects of national importance and concerning national security," which could have severe consequences for the environment and biodiversity in states like Sikkim and Uttarakhand, known for their rich forest cover and biodiversity.

The letter also raises concerns about the Bill's impact on forest-dependent communities. It points out that the Forest Rights Act (FRA) of 2006, which supports these communities, is not mentioned in the Bill, and no provisions are provided to protect the rights granted under the FRA. The group worries that the Bill's provisions may conflict with the rights and livelihoods of forest-dependent communities.

The CCG letter asserts that the Amendment Bill is misleading and flawed, and its passage in its current form could have grave consequences for India's forest resources and biodiversity. The group urges parliament not to pass the Bill in its current form, as it may undermine the very Act it seeks to amend and threaten the country's existing forest resources.

The Forest Conservation (Amendment) Bill, 2023, has drawn significant attention and debate, with concerns being raised over its potential impact on India's forests, environment, and forest-dependent communities. The government will need to carefully consider these concerns and engage in constructive dialogue with all stakeholders before moving forward with the Bill.

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