New bill sparks concern over forest conservation and indigenous rights in Northeast India

(Photo: Unsplash/Unma Desai)

In a significant move that has captured the attention of environmentalists, indigenous communities, and policymakers alike, the Indian government has passed the Forest Conservation (Amendment) Bill through both houses of the Parliament of India.

This proposed legislation, which sailed through the Lok Sabha (Lower house of the Parliament of India) and the Rajya Sabha (Upper House of the parliament of India) on August 2, 2023, with minimum deliberations due to ongoing Manipur issue, will bring about noteworthy changes to the existing Forest Conservation Act of 1980.

The legislation could have far-reaching implications, particularly in the ecologically diverse and culturally rich region of Northeast India, affecting nearly all seven states with the exception of Assam. Three states in northeast India are majority Christian by population, Nagaland, Mizoram and Meghalaya and all three would be affected by the provisions of the legislation.

The Forest Conservation (Amendment) Bill primarily aims to streamline the process of utilising forest land for developmental projects across the country. It aims to exclude land within 100 km of India's borders from conservation laws, allowing activities like zoos and eco-tourism in forests.

One of its key provisions seeks to simplify the procedure for obtaining clearance for construction and development activities within forested areas. This has raised concerns among environmentalists and indigenous rights advocates, who fear that such changes could lead to increased deforestation and disruption of fragile ecosystems.

Of particular concern is the proposed redefinition of the term "forest" within the bill. This new definition, if adopted, could potentially exclude vast stretches of land from the protective ambit of the original Forest Conservation Act of 1980. When coupled with the eased forest clearance procedures, this modification has prompted worries about the escalation of deforestation and its subsequent impact on the environment and biodiversity.

However, it is in the North-eastern states of India where the most fervent opposition to the bill has arisen. These states, known for their rich indigenous cultures and extensive forest cover, have expressed apprehensions about the potential consequences of the bill on their local communities and traditional ways of life. Critics argue that the bill could undermine the land rights of indigenous peoples and disrupt the delicate balance between communities and their natural surroundings.

In states like Mizoram, where livelihoods are intricately linked to forest resources, the Forest Conservation (Amendment) Bill has struck a particularly sensitive chord. Activists and leaders from the region have raised concerns that the proposed amendments could jeopardise the very fabric of indigenous communities and erode ancestral lands. Lalrinmawii Fanai, Vice President of the Mizoram Peoples Conference Party, has voiced concerns that the bill's provisions might severely curtail the traditional practices and livelihoods of those who rely on forest resources for their sustenance.

The Naga People’s Front (NPF) has criticised the Bill as "anti-tribal" and called for an urgent session of the Nagaland Assembly to oppose the same. The NPF demanded that the state's government swiftly enact a law or resolution to reject the "anti-tribal and anti-constitutional bill."

Kuzholuzo Nienu, leader of the NPF, emphasised that the Bill weakens the state's authority by giving the central government final say on forest matters. He further stated that the legislation poses a threat to tribal lands, which hold historical, cultural and identity significance for the region.

A notable point of contention revolves around the bill's exclusion of "deemed forests" from protection. This aspect has garnered objections from states like Nagaland, Sikkim, Mizoram and Tripura, which argue that such exclusion could potentially be exploited by the government for various purposes.

Proponents of the bill, including the government, assert that the amendments are necessary to promote afforestation efforts and facilitate crucial development projects. The government contends that the changes are aligned with India's commitments to enhance green cover and combat climate change by establishing carbon sinks. Additionally, the bill aims to expedite security-related projects along international borders that are deemed of national significance.