Changes in Focus: Reshaping the ‘Forest’ Legal Paradigm
Broadly stated, the Forest Conservation (Amendment) Bill aims to redefine the parameters of conservation as established by the existing Act, narrowing its purview to encompass specific forested lands. Furthermore, the bill introduces a provision exempting borderlands from the requirement to obtain authorization for forest clearance, particularly in the context of erecting “strategic linear projects of national importance.” Additionally, the bill introduces provisions permitting select non-forest activities, such as the establishment and operation of zoological gardens and ‘eco-tourism’ facilities, within forested regions.
Central to the bill’s core proposition is the redefinition of the legal concept of a ‘forest‘ within the framework of Indian law. It specifies that only those lands which were previously classified as ‘forest‘ under the Indian Forest Act of 1927, any other pertinent legislative statutes, or were officially documented as ‘forests’ in governmental records, shall retain their ‘forest‘ designation under the new Act.
This revision stands in stark juxtaposition to the prevailing scope of the existing Act, which presently extends to encompass “any forest land.” A notable verdict by the Supreme Court in 1996 affirmed this expansive application, underscoring that the term ‘forest‘ encompasses all lands delineated as such in official government records, irrespective of ownership. Moreover, it extended the classification to include “deemed forests,” areas not formally designated as ‘forests‘ but possessing substantial arboreal cover and undergrowth, aligning with the conventional interpretation of the term. The Supreme Court also urged state authorities to initiate the identification and notification of their respective ‘deemed forests.’ However, decades later, several states remain in the process of executing this directive. In instances where these efforts have been undertaken, the scientific rigor of the identification process remains unclear.
Consequently, the proposed amendment ushers in the prospect of subjecting all lands not officially categorized as ‘forests‘ to potential commercial exploitation. Additionally, it dismantles the existing safeguards enshrined within the current Act, exemplified by the requisites of forest clearance permissions and the informed consent of local communities. A notable feature of the bill is its provision to exempt linear infrastructural endeavours, such as roadways and highways, from the mandatory forest clearance requisites, provided they are situated within a proximity of 100 kilometres from the national border. Apprehensions concerning the utilization of the term “strategic linear projects of national importance,” are voiced, which remains ambiguously defined within the bill. This ambiguity could potentially be exploited to advance infrastructural ventures that exert deleterious impacts on the local ecology.
Implications on Indigenous Communities: A Landscape of Concern
In March, the introduction of the Bill took place within the Lok Sabha, followed by its subsequent referral to a Joint Parliamentary Committee (JPC). This committee, comprising 32 members hailing from both chambers of the Parliament and spanning various party affiliations, undertook the examination. Leading the JPC was Rajendra Agrawal, the esteemed representative of the Bharatiya Janata Party from Meerut.
Of notable concern are the considerable implications on distinct geographical regions, particularly affecting approximately 40% of the Aravalli range and a substantial 95% of the Niyamgiri hill range. It is imperative to emphasize that the latter encompasses the habitat of the Dongria Kondh community, classified as a Particularly Vulnerable Tribal Group. The matter is further compounded by the lack of accessible State-level data on deemed forests, casting uncertainties upon the accurate extent of land that will be excluded from the scope of the revised Act. This obscurity carries heightened significance in the North-eastern States, where the exemption would, in essence, encompass the entirety of the region.
Unconventional Oversight: A Bypassed Mechanism
Throughout the deliberative process within the JPC, numerous states under the governance of the Bharatiya Janata Party in the region expressed dissent regarding the 100-kilometer exemption stipulated in the Bill. This discord manifested diversely. Nagaland advocated for a variable exemption distance owing to its diminutive size and its positioning within the Indo-Burma biodiversity hotspot. Conversely, Tripura advocated for a reduction of the exemption distance to a mere 10 kilometres. In contrast, Arunachal Pradesh sought an expansion of the range to an extensive 150 kilometres.
It is noteworthy that the Bill bypassed the pertinent oversight mechanism of reference to the relevant Parliamentary Standing Committee, which, in this instance, would have been the Standing Committee on Science and Technology, Environment, Forests, and Climate Change, presided over by Jairam Ramesh, a Member of Parliament from the Congress party. Despite not being obligatory, such referral to Standing Committees aligns with the Pre-legislative Consultation Policy, signifying a prudent approach for review. In the case of the Forest (Conservation) Amendment Bill 2023, this practice was circumvented.
Reservations and Disregard: Dissent and Debate
In an intriguing turn, the JPC’s report on the Bill remained untouched, with no alterations proposed, despite the committee having received an approximate tally of 1,200 representations. These submissions encompassed objections from an array of stakeholders, including tribal communities, conservationists, and legal experts in environmental matters, activists, and civic groups. Strikingly, within the JPC itself, six members penned dissenting opinions. Pertinently, the Ministry of Tribal Affairs conveyed reservations to the JPC regarding the potential implications of the amendment on community rights enshrined within the Forest Rights Act of 2006, as delineated in the conclusive JPC report.
Evidently, a document obtained by this author showcased instances wherein the JPC accepted inadequately substantiated justifications from the Union Environment Ministry pertaining to the proposed amendments. Furthermore, the JPC entertained responses that deviated from the original query, raising apprehensions about the integrity of the parliamentary process.
During proceedings in the Lok Sabha, the Bill encountered minimal resistance as the majority of Opposition Members of Parliament were preoccupied with drawing attention to the turmoil in Manipur. While this led to the Bill’s swift passage within the Lok Sabha, it awaited deliberation within the upper house at the time of writing this article. Regardless of the outcome of the debate, the Bill’s departure from the conventional legal definition of ‘forests‘, its emphasis on establishing carbon sinks (rather than adhering to the Act’s primary objective of conserving existing forests), and the prevailing uncertainty regarding its scope collectively cast a shadow over its implications.
From Tradition to Modernity: Ancient Roots of Ecotourism
Forests and wildlife constitute integral facets of the natural realm, profoundly interwoven within the broader tapestry of the environment. Given the intricate interplay that characterizes the juncture between the natural world and human society, the preservation of nature inherently entails a dynamic interrelationship with humanity at its core. This interaction encompasses not only those residing on the fringes of forests but also extends to individuals dwelling beyond these woodland boundaries, who engage in shaping immersive encounters for visitors. The concept of eco-tourism, a strategic approach, envisions the development of immersive experiences within and around designated locales nestled within biologically, geographically, geo-physically, and eco-heritage significant regions, such as mangroves, sacred groves, mudflats, beaches, streams, wetlands, waterfalls, hills, rivers, and caves. This comprehensive framework for eco-tourism envisions the potential to not only heighten public consciousness but also catalyse a mass movement towards the preservation of nature and its finite resources. Simultaneously, it stands poised to augment economic returns, elevate skillsets, engender novel insights, foster environmentally conscious employment opportunities, and ameliorate the well-being of local communities.
However, it is imperative to approach eco-tourism through a rigorously science-driven paradigm to avert the potentially irreversible repercussions that ill-conceived practices could inflict upon the natural world. The “Guidelines on Sustainable Eco-Tourism in Forest and Wildlife Areas 2021,” hereafter referred to as the “Guidelines” or “Eco-Tourism Guidelines,” emerges as a pivotal instrument. It furnishes a blueprint for the implementation and propagation of sustainable eco-tourism endeavours, striving to optimize positive outcomes that harmonize with the unadulterated forms of nature and its resources. Concurrently, the Guidelines endeavour to curtail any adverse externalities stemming from the intricate interplay between human interactions and nature’s delicate equilibrium. Acknowledging the breadth of potential eco-tourism sites, these Guidelines extend their purview beyond the confines of established Protected Areas, which currently exceed 900 across the nation. These guidelines find applicability across the spectrum of forested and wildlife-rich regions, irrespective of land ownership, encompassing public, communal, and private domains.
Evolution of Ecotourism: Harmonizing Nature and Humanity
Amidst the lush landscapes and diverse ecosystems of India lies a tale of harmony and conservation, woven through the threads of a concept known as ecotourism. This concept has journeyed through time, evolving from mere recreational pursuits to a robust force driving environmental awareness and sustainable development. Join us on a captivating exploration of how ecotourism has metamorphosed in India, becoming a beacon of hope for both nature and humanity. The roots of ecotourism in India can be traced back to ancient times when indigenous communities lived in harmony with nature. Tribes revered the land and its creatures, engaging in rituals that celebrated the coexistence of both realms. Sacred groves, verdant hills, and serene rivers were sanctuaries, preserved and cherished for generations. These practices laid the foundation for a concept that would, centuries later, blossom into modern ecotourism.
The colonial era marked a significant shift, with the pristine landscapes of India becoming playgrounds for the British elite. The exploitation of resources for recreational purposes stirred concerns about environmental degradation, laying bare the need for responsible tourism. However, it wasn’t until post-independence that the seeds of conservation were sown. The 1970s saw a paradigm shift as global environmental consciousness surged. India, too, embraced the idea of responsible tourism, giving birth to the modern concept of ecotourism. National parks and wildlife reserves emerged, not merely as tourist attractions but as sanctuaries for biodiversity. Concurrently, efforts to empower local communities gained traction, ensuring they reaped the benefits of tourism while safeguarding their natural heritage.
Embracing Sustainability: A Broader Canvas
In the following decades, ecotourism evolved into a harmonious blend of conservation and immersive experiences. Protected areas like Ranthambore and Kaziranga drew enthusiasts, providing glimpses of majestic tigers and one-horned rhinos. Simultaneously, initiatives focused on sensitizing tourists about their ecological footprint gained momentum, emphasizing the importance of minimizing disturbances to delicate ecosystems. As the 21st century dawned, the concept of ecotourism in India embraced sustainability on a broader canvas. The scope expanded beyond traditional wildlife hotspots, encompassing diverse landscapes like coastal regions, mangroves, and heritage sites. The fusion of technology and conservation birthed unique experiences like virtual eco-trails, allowing tourists to explore without compromising fragile ecosystems.
Ecotourism in India today stands as a potent instrument for education and advocacy. Nature camps, interactive workshops, and interpretive centres have become tools to ignite curiosity about the environment. By fostering connections between tourists and local communities, ecotourism sparks a shared responsibility for safeguarding natural treasures. From its humble beginnings rooted in indigenous wisdom to its current role as a catalyst for sustainability, the evolution of ecotourism in India is an awe-inspiring journey. This concept has transcended time, transforming from recreational escapades to a force that champions the coexistence of nature and mankind. As we stand on the precipice of the future, the tale of Indian ecotourism is a testament to the harmonious symphony that can be orchestrated when humanity dances in rhythm with the environment.
Raising the Alarm: Himachal Pradesh’s Flood Wake-Up Call
The recent inundations witnessed in the Himachal Pradesh region have distinctly underscored the imperative for robust forest conservation legislation within the purview of India. An instrumental stride towards addressing this concern materialized in the form of the Forest Conservation (Amendment) Bill of 2023, endorsed by the Lok Sabha in July of the same year, thus exemplifying a judicious progression.
The bill introduces a relaxation in certain constraints pertaining to the utilization of forest land for non-forestry objectives. Nevertheless, the bill is meticulously composed with a confluence of stipulations intended to safeguard the sanctity of forests and their intricate biodiversity. Evidently, the legislation necessitates the antecedent endorsement of the central government for actions such as the reversion of designated forest areas, the repurposing of forested land for non-forest applications, and the allocation of forest land to private entities.
Further enhancing its utility, the bill encompasses provisions mandating the reforestation of deteriorated forest domains. This dimension assumes paramount significance, given the pivotal role played by forests in the mitigation of climatic perturbations. Forests diligently sequester carbon dioxide from the ambient air, thus retarding the advance of global warming. Moreover, their role in modulating the hydrological cycle serves to mitigate the perils of deluges and droughts.
Operationalizing Intent: A Call for Efficient Implementation
The Forest Conservation (Amendment) Bill of 2023, in essence, represents a substantive legislative stride capable of furnishing India with the tools to confront both the repercussions of climate change and the recent calamitous floods that plagued Himachal Pradesh. Nonetheless, the onus lies on the efficient operationalization of this legislation. Adequate governmental resources must be marshalled to effectively oversee and enforce the provisions stipulated in the bill. In tandem with the Forest Conservation (Amendment) Bill of 2023, a plethora of additional measures await India’s embrace to fortify its forested expanse and combat climate vagaries. These encompass investments in sustainable sylvan management methodologies, curbing deforestation and degradation, advocating afforestation and reforestation undertakings, bolstering community-driven forest oversight, and fostering heightened cognizance of the indispensability of forests. Through the orchestration of these initiatives, India stands poised to safeguard its rich tapestry of forests and biodiversity, abate the onslaught of climate mutations, and diminish the spectre of natural cataclysms.
 Forest Conservation (Amendment) Bill, 2023, No. 12 of 2023, 1st sess., 68th leg. (India).
 Indian Forest Act, 1927, No. 16 of 1927, Acts of Parliament, 1927 (India).
 T.N. Godavarman Thirumulkpad v. Union of India & Ors. W.P. (Civil) No. 171/96.
 Jacob Koshy, Centre clarifies on definition of land as forest, The Hindu, (August 5, 2023, 12:11 PM), https://www.thehindu.com/news/national/centre-clarifies-on-definition-of-land-as-forest/article29745691.ece.
 Joint Parliamentary Committee, Report on Forest Conservation (Amendment) Bill, 2023, https://prsindia.org/files/bills_acts/bills_parliament/2023/Joint_Committee_Report_on_the_Forest_(Conservation)_Amendment_Bill_2023.pdf
 Forest Rights Act of 2006, 2006, No. 46, 27 U.S.C. §§ 1600-1616.
 Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change, Guidelines for sustainable eco-tourism in forest and wildlife areas – 2021, https://mpforest.gov.in/ecotourism/pdf/MOEFCC.pdf.
 Adams, W.B., 2013. Against extinction: the story of conservation. Routledge.
 Ashwani Sharma, Himalayan Fury: Himachal Pradesh’s Record Breaking Floods Behind Trail of Destruction, Outlook, (August 7, 2023, 3:41 PM), https://www.outlookindia.com/national/himalayan-fury-himachal-pradesh-s-record-breaking-floods-leave-trail-of-destruction-news-304214.