India’s Forest Act faces challenges in the Supreme Court Environmentalists and ecologists take a stand

The revised Forest Conservation Act of India, according to ecologists, bureaucrats, and conservationists, will diminish biodiversity and negatively impact livelihoods.

Attention India
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This Monday, the Indian Supreme Court decided to hear arguments in a case challenging a contentious new forest rule. Thirteen former officials from the Forest Service and Environment Ministry submitted a formal request for a hearing with the Supreme Court in October, arguing that the modified Forest Conservation Act violates the Constitution. The law, which some scientists claim makes it easier to cut forests for development and undermines the rights of millions of people who depend on natural ecosystems, is the target of ongoing protests, the most recent of which is the next hearing, which has not yet been scheduled. The amended statute, according to co-petitioner M. K. Ranjitsinh Jhala, a former department head at the Ministry of Environment and Forests, will be detrimental to both the Indian environment and the way of life for those who live near forests. “There’s nothing in that act that we can see is going to help nature conservation, food security, ecological security, and livelihood,” he says.

The Forest Conservation Act

To reconcile the demands placed on forests by local communities, industry, government agencies, and wildlife, the Forest Conservation Act was first drafted in 1980. It prohibited the use of any forest area for logging, agriculture, timber plantations, or other commercial endeavours. Landowners were forced to submit plans for approval to the central government to develop their land, and “compensatory afforestation” was sometimes necessary.

In August of last year, the Indian Parliament passed a bill amending the act, allowing for the development of large tracts of forest and removing the need for clearance for some new projects. The statute was scheduled to take effect in December, but it has been put on hold while the hearing is taking place.

Many environmentalist groups and scientists protested the law

Scientists, environmental groups, and indigenous people protested the measure when it was being passed by parliament. Ecologists refer to India as a megadiverse, since it is home to roughly 8% of all known species. The India State of the Forest 2021 report states that 21% of the nation was covered by forests in 2021. Merely 5.3% of it is subject to stringent protection. Some omnivorous mammals inhabit adjacent lands outside of these protected areas, including the Asian elephant (Elephas maximus) and the tiger (Panthera tigris).

According to Sandeep Sharma, an ecologist from the German Centre for Integrative Biodiversity Research in Leipzig who is not a signatory to the petition, the new laws may split their habitats, increasing human–wildlife conflict.

Fragmentation would also reduce the ecosystem’s ability to provide services to humans, such as freshwater or clean air, he says. “The water from a contiguous patch of forest is different than the water you get from a fragmented forest,” he says.

The Act

 Whether “forest” has legal meaning is one of the act’s main changes. The Oxford English Dictionary defines the word as “a large area covered chiefly with trees and undergrowth,” which was the definition provided by the court in a 1996 decision on the legislation. These days, only regions officially documented as woods are recognized by the government.

According to ecologists, 27.6% of India’s forest cover—roughly the size of Uganda—is unrecorded and would no longer be protected. States have been urged by the environment ministry to map and document their woods within a year, but Meenal Tatpati, an independent lawyer and environment researcher based in Pune, India, believes this will be difficult. She claims that even though the Supreme Court ordered in 1996 that states form expert teams to find unrecorded forests, the majority of them have not done so 27 years later.

By: Gursharan Kaur

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