PTI: The Environment Ministry has proposed to amend the Forest Conservation Act to do away with the requirement of prior government approval for the development of border infrastructure on forest land, saying it causes delay in the implementation of critical projects. The ministry has invited suggestions from states, union territories and all people concerned on the proposed amendments to the Act, within the next 15 days.
“Development of infrastructure along the international border areas is crucial for keeping our borders intact and to uphold the sovereignty of the country. “Given the present scenario of obtaining approval for non-forestry use of forest land, many a times, strategic and security projects of national importance get delayed resulting in setback to development of such infrastructure at critical locations,” the ministry noted while proposing to exempt such projects from obtaining prior approval of the central government under the Act.
It also proposed to allow the states to permit non-forest use of forest land for implementation of such strategic and security projects that are to be completed in a given time frame. The ministry also plans to exempt from prior government approval the lands which were acquired before 1980, when the FCA first came into existence, noting that it has caused resentment in public sector bodies, including railways and public works department (PWD).
“There is a strong resentment in the Ministry of Railways, Ministry of Road, Transport & Highways, etc. for interpretation of the scope of applicability of the Act over the right of way (RoW) of railways, highways, etc. “In most cases, these RoWs are claimed to have been formally acquired by these developmental organisations long before 1980, with a specific purpose to construct / establish rail line and roads. Part of the land was used for the purpose it was acquired before 1980 and the remaining part of the acquired land was left as such for future constructions/expansions, the ministry noted.
It said that trees or forest existing on the leftover acquired land were, thus, left as such (prior to 1980) and further the blank areas were planted under different government schemes. With the enactment of the Act and further clarification on its scope of applicability by the Supreme Court, all such land requires prior approval of the central government for the non-forestry use. Thus, a landholding agency (Rail, NHAI, PWD, etc) is required to take approval under the Act as well as pay stipulated compensatory levies such as Net Present Value (NPV), Compensatory Afforestation (CA), etc. for use of such land which was originally been acquired for non-forest purposes. Ministry is considering now to exempt such lands acquired before October 25, 1980 from the purview of the Act, the ministry said. Under the FCA, central government approval is mandatory before any state or UT order on diversion, de-reservation and assignment of lease of any forest land or use of forest land for non-forest activities.
Noting that there have been several violations of the provisions of the Act, the ministry said it will make the punishment more stringent to discourage offences under the law. It proposed that the offences will be cognisable and non-bailable, and will entail a simple imprisonment for a period which may extend to one year. The document also proposes removing zoos, safaris, forest training infrastructures from the definition of non-forestry activities.
“It is understood that activities which are ancillary to conservation of forests and wildlife should not be considered as non-forestry activities. Accordingly, it has been proposed that, establishment of zoos, safaris, forest training infrastructures, etc. should not come within the meaning of “non-forestry activity” for the purpose of Section 2(ii) of the Act, it said.