Once again the state authorities, particularly the Forest and Environment Department, have been caught napping over proposed amendments to the Forest Conservation Act 1980, which could have a debilitating impact on Meghalaya’s forests, which are largely community owned under the Sixth Schedule area.
The state has two days only left to hold public consultations and then respond with its comments to the proposal put up by the Union Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change.
Meghalaya is unique in that it is the only state in the country where the state government controls only about 5 percent of forested areas while the rest falls under the district councils as custodians of community and private forests and lands belonging to the indigenous people of the state.
Any changes in the FC Act 1980 or any other major law on managing lands and forests would have a resounding impact on the people of the state. Activists said that it behoves the councils to be alert enough to hold consultations with their people and give their objections or suggest better laws before it is too late.
A letter with the subject “inviting comments/suggestion on proposed amendments in Forest (Conservation) Act, 1980” addressed to the Additional Chief Secretary, Principal Secretary (Forest), Principal Chief Conservator of Forests (PCCF) and others concerned was dated October 2, 2021. It specifically mentioned that they have 15 days to submit their comments.
Attached was a note called “consultation paper on proposed amendments in the FCA, 1980”.
The amendments outlined therein are sweeping intentions which virtually overturn the FCA 1980 from its current role as a strong law with the sole objective of conservation and protection of forests into a piece of legislation that will allow all manner of “non-forest” works in forest areas without prior clearances.
Whereas the FCA 1980 is uncompromising in its prohibition of mining, plantations, infrastructure projects in forest areas whether they happen to be reserved forests or private or community forests without following the stringent environment and forest clearance rules, the proposed amendments now want to allow all that.
Activists point out, for example, that Section 2 of the FCA 1980 puts total restriction on the de-reservation of forests or use of forest land for non-forest purposes. Under the act, non-forest purposes mean the breaking or clearing of any forest land or portion thereof for the cultivation of tea, coffee, spices, rubber, palms, oil-bearing plants, horticultural crops of medicinal plants, any purpose other than reafforestation, but does not include any work relating or ancillary to conservation, development and management of forests and wildlife, namely, the establishment of check-posts, fire lines, wireless communications and construction of fencing, bridges and culverts, dams, waterholes, trench marks, boundary marks, pipelines or other like purposes.
But this very core of the FCA 1980 is now sought to be changed in the opposite direction by amending the act to allow all these very activities in forest areas without prior permission.
The amendment also wants to exempt “strategic and security projects” along international border areas from obtaining prior approval from the central government.
Activists and campaigners who have been holding online discussions on the matter said that amendments suggested by the central government only exposes their aim of further commercializing the forests by making it easier for corporations to enter into business deals with the private owners or communities without worrying much about fulfilling many compensatory tasks for undertaking any activities in forested lands.
It is also said that at a time when the protection of forests and biodiversity from further erosion to stave off climate change should be the topmost priority for any government, the current administration is easing the protective laws to allow for exploitation. This will only endanger the last remaining forests, particularly in a state like Meghalaya, and the rest of the North East states, which is a biodiversity hotspot.