Expanding forest cover

An amendment to the outworn Indian Forest Act has been due for a long while, especially since 1996, when a judgment by the Supreme Court changed the very fundamentals of the concept of forests and their governance. Any green patch that conformed to the “dictionary meaning” of the term “forest” be considered forest and governed accordingly, the court had decreed. With this, most kinds of land with a green canopy, regardless of their ownership, became “deemed forest”, requiring forest authorities’ prior permission before putting them to any use. Public i.....
An amendment to the outworn Indian Forest Act has been due for a long while, especially since 1996, when a judgment by the Supreme Court changed the very fundamentals of the concept of forests and their governance. Any green patch that conformed to the “dictionary meaning” of the term “forest” be considered forest and governed accordingly, the court had decreed. With this, most kinds of land with a green canopy, regardless of their ownership, became “deemed forest”, requiring forest authorities’ prior permission before putting them to any use. Public institutions like the railways and road departments, too, needed the forest ministry’s nod to utilise their spare land alongside rail tracks and roads if trees or other vegetation had come up there. Strategically vital projects in border areas and elsewhere, too, had to go through the time-consuming process of getting necessary clearances.

The environment ministry has, therefore, done well to initiate the process to amend the existing forest legislation, though this exercise is turning out to be a long-drawn one. After the failure of the couple of initial bids to do so in 2017 and 2019, due chiefly to inimical public reaction to the mooted changes, the environment ministry has now come up with another, and thoroughly revised, note which merits consideration. Put up in the public domain recently to elicit stakeholders’ and state governments’ response, this text does away with many of the contentious and thorny regulatory provisions of the previous drafts and can, with necessary changes, form the basis for the modification of this law. Even while decriminalising minor offences to reduce the load on public litigation, it moots relatively high penalties for major infringements and also more stringent norms for forest conservation. More importantly, it seeks to introduce a novel concept of “pristine forests” where no non-forestry activity will be allowed under any circumstances. Exploring and extracting oil and natural gas from beneath the forest lands are proposed to be allowed by drilling holes from outside the forest areas without harming the underground water aquifers. This provision, however, may turn controversial as experts still differ on the efficacy of this technology.

On the upside, the new draft seeks to introduce some significant and need-based reforms in the forest sector, which can potentially pave the way for forestry activities even on private lands. Most of the irksome curbs on harvesting, transit, and trade of the forest produce grown on private plots are proposed to be removed. But, at the same time, it fails to lay due emphasis on promoting agro-forestry, which has a huge potential to expand green cover in rural areas, apart from generating additional income for the farmers. Promoting tree plantations on private lands and agricultural farms has, indeed, become imperative now in view of the paucity of government or community lands for raising new forests. Private participation seems vital to meet the coveted targets of covering 33 per cent land with forests and creating a carbon sink to lock in 2.5-3 billion tonnes of carbon dioxide as stipulated under the self-determined climate action under the Paris agreement on climate change. The paramount need today is to strike a balance between forest expansion, environment protection, and economic development. Joint endeavour by the public and private sectors is vital to achieve this key objective.


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