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The Forest (Conservation) Amendment Bill 2023: Boost to the Construction of Strategic Infrastructure

Dr Pushpita Das is Research Fellow at the Manohar Parrikar Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses, New Delhi. Click here for detailed profile
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  • April 06, 2023

    The Forest (Conservation) Amendment Bill, 2023 was introduced in the Lok Sabha on 29 March 2023 with the objectives to inter alia ‘clarify the scope of applicability of the Act upon various lands so as to remove ambiguities and bring clarity’ as well as ‘exempt certain categories of lands from the purview of the Act’.1 Certain type of land that shall not be covered under the Act is forest land situated alongside a rail line or a public road maintained by the Government, which provides access to a habitation, or to a rail, and roadside amenity up to a maximum size of 0.10 hectare.

    Most importantly, the forest land that are exempted from the purview of the Act are: i) land situated within 100 km along the international borders, Line of Control, or Line of Actual Control on which construction of strategic linear project for national importance or security are proposed, (ii) land up to 10 hectares proposed to be used for constructing security related infrastructure, or (iii) land proposed to be used for constructing defence related project, camp for paramilitary forces, or public utility projects as specified by central government (not exceeding five hectares in a left wing extremism affected area). These exemptions will be subject to the terms and conditions specified by the central government by guidelines.2

    As is evident, one of the main objectives of the proposed amendment to the Forest Conservation Act of 1980 is to ‘fast track strategic and security related projects of national importance’. The need for proposing the amendments to the Forest Act of 1980 rose from the fact that environmental and forest clearance was the predominant hurdle in building strategic roads and railways along India’s international borders. For example, the Government of India has planned 73 strategic roads along the India-China border (which were to be completed by 2012). But these projects were either delayed or could not be started at all because forest and wildlife clearances from the Ministry of Environment and Forest (MoEF) were either received with much delay or not received at all.

    According to a Border Road Organisation (BRO) official,

    “The biggest stumbling block to develop infrastructure in border areas has been the Forest Conservation Act (FCA) 1980 and the Wildlife Protection Act (WPA) 1972 whose various provisions lead to considerable delay in obtaining permission to construct roads as also impose large financial costs”.3

    As stated, getting environmental and forest clearances are cumbersome and time consuming processes. For instance, the environmental clearance involves four stages: screening of the projects; scoping to determine the terms of reference; public consultations through public hearing or written responses to access impact on local community; and appraisal which entails detailed scrutiny of the proposed project by a committee of experts.  Similarly, forest clearances also have stages for procuring a forest clearance certificate. Stage I requires filling up five forms, viz. User Agency, Divisional Forest Officer (DFO), Chief Conservator of Forest (CCF), Principal Chief Conservator of Forests (PCCF) and the Integrated Regional Office (IRO). After Stage I clearance is acquired, similar five forms have to be filled up again for Stage II clearance.

    Getting the clearance is a long drawn process can be ascertained by the fact that even though the MoEF had reduced the processing time for border roads along the India-China border from 90 days to 30 days at the state government level, and from 60 days to 30 days at the Union government level, and introduced a single window system to eliminate procedural delays, the average time to obtain forest clearance still takes several years. It is reported that at present, more than 60 projects belonging to various BRO projects along the northern borders are awaiting Stage I and Stage II forest clearance from the state and union governments. The maximum projects which are stuck because of delays in the forest clearance are in Arunachal Pradesh followed by Himachal Pradesh. In 2017, 71 road projects in the Northeast of India were awaiting clearance from the MoEF. It is for this reason that the Highway Authority had been urging the Union government to delink forest clearances from environmental clearances.

    Taking heed to this plea, the MOEF on 14 July 2022 published a Gazette Notification in which it announced amendments to the the Environment Impact Assessment Notification of 2006. The amendments allowed exemptions for highway projects related to defence and strategic importance which are constructed up to 100 km from line of control (LoC) or international borders (IB), from the requirement of environmental clearance. The developers of these projects, however, have to adhere to self-compliance of specified standard operating procedure (SOP), as notified by the Union government from time to time.4

    It is important note to note that before the MoEF could give the final clearance, it has to receive environmental and forest clearances from the respective state governments. Here in lies another hurdle. Forest and environmental clearance include various activities such as verification of documents, conducting surveys, onsite/field inspections, raising queries, recommendations, etc. which are manpower intensive. Non-availability of ground staff in revenue and forest departments at the state level coupled with poor coordination among the agencies concerned are largely responsible for delays in obtaining forest and environmental clearances at the state level, where most of the delays happen.

    Added to the problem is the fact that land records are not well maintained, and cadastral surveys are not done in many states. Land being a state subject, the non-cooperation of state governments in allotting land to the BRO also adds to the problem. In some states, land is held by communities or families posing peculiar problems in acquisition of land. Frequent changes made in the pricing of land by the revenue and forest officials also contribute towards enormous delays in land acquisition. It is not only the construction of strategic roads and railways, but also various security infrastructure such as border fences, border out posts (BoPs), border roads, bridges, etc. that are hampered by the delays in forest and environmental clearances. Delays in these clearances not only adversely impacts the construction of roads, railways, bridges but also results in cost escalation of the projects.

    Building strategic infrastructure along India’s international borders is an imperative for the defence and development of the country. Speedy construction of infrastructure in the ecologically sensitive border areas could not take place because of the stringent laws put in place to protect the country’s depleting forest cover and to restore its ecological balance. As a result, forest and environmental clearances became extremely difficult to obtain, even for projects of strategic importance, which adversely affected India’s defence and security preparedness.

    While the environment activists may decry the move as catastrophic, an alternate cue can be taken from the Hon’ble Supreme Court’s pronouncements of 14 December 2021. On that day, the Hon’ble Court  allowed the widening of three strategic highways — Rishikesh to Mana, Rishikesh to Gangotri, and Tanakpur to Pithoragarh (a 900 km Chardham Mahamarg Vikas Pariyojna) stating that the considerations governing the construction of highways that are strategic roads couldn’t be the same as those for other roads in mountainous regions. The Supreme Court noted:

    “We must therefore arrive at a delicate balance of environmental considerations such that they do not impede infrastructural development, specifically in areas of strategic importance crucial to the security of the nation.”5

    Given this context, the proposed amendments to the Forest Conservation Bill of 1980 are a welcome step as it exempts forest land used for defence and security purposes from the purview of this Act. This will allow for speedy implementation of several road and other infrastructure projects, especially in the border areas.

    Views expressed are of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Manohar Parrikar IDSA or of the Government of India.