Goodbye environmental clearances, hello cleared protected forests.
Origins of the Forest Conservation Act
Post-independence India lacked a robust framework for environmental protection. The consequent crisis was observable in the rapid deforestation and biodiversity loss recorded in the 1950s and 60s. The situation, however, was set to change. In the early 70s, the nation experienced an overhaul of its legal framework—in favour of conservation.
In her book, The Vanishing, author and conservationist Prerna Bindra writes, “India’s environment laws were a response to the demand of the times…[F]orests were being destroyed on a massive scale for agriculture, industry, and infrastructure—by some estimates over 1 lakh hectares annually between 1951 and 1976, serving as an impetus for the Forest (Conservation) Act in 1980.”
Reserved forests are areas designated with one of the highest levels of protection in India, with even forest activities like grazing and hunting being largely banned. The promulgation of the Forest Conservation Act (FCA) made it mandatory for local governments to seek permission from the Union Government before de-reserving a reserved forest or allowing the use of forest land for non-forest activities. The regulations put in place by this act brought post-1980 forest diversion down to 38,000 ha.
(Also read: The True Cost of Luxury)
The Forest Rights Act
Until 2006, the FCA gave policymakers free rein over the forest clearance process, thus facilitating the exploitation of forest dwellers. However, the Forest Rights Act (FRA) of 2006 bestowed the scheduled tribes and other traditional forest dwellers with tremendous power over the assignment of forest clearance. From here on, the FCA and FRA became a near-singular block defining forest rights.
The Forest Clearance procedure has two stages—In in-principle and Final. According to the FRA, a forest clearance cannot be given without the approval of the Gram Sabha and the settlement of the forest dwellers’ rights in line with the act—not even Stage 1 clearance.
The FRA and its provisions brought accountability to a process earlier marked by industrial favouritism and lobby influence. It handed over a chunk of the decision-making power to the forest dwellers, thereby restraining the political class and industries from freely exploiting their land.
(Also read: Tribal Communities: The Final Frontier)
The new Forest Conservation Rules
In June 2022, the MoEFCC notified the Forest Conservation Rules, 2022. The rules quickly garnered criticism from experts who allege that the rules do away with key conservation measures in the FCA, nullifying much of what the FRA brought to India’s conservation landscape.
The clause requiring Gram Sabha's consent in the clearance process is missing from the new rules altogether. This pushes the struggle for bringing affected communities to the decision-making table behind by several years.
In 2012, the Environment Ministry attempted to shift the settlement of forest dwellers’ rights to Stage 2 [Final] of the clearance process. It was fiercely resisted by the Ministry of Tribal Affairs—with the amendment eventually not going ahead. Now, the new rules allow for forest rights to be settled after the final go-ahead for forest clearance has already been granted, rendering the entire process futile.
The new rules also take whatever’s left of the responsibility of settling forest rights away from the Union Government and give it to the State governments. Such a structure could potentially create pressure on the State to hasten the process of right settlement under the fear of being viewed as anti-industry. Over time, it can also become a political tool—impeding the conservation cause.
It promotes compensatory afforestation for areas where forest land diversion has been conducted. In doing so, the rules encourage the popular but unsound notion that compensatory afforestation is the solution for forest diversion despite its inability to replace a pre-existing mature ecosystem.
The rules state that if the forest diversion is taking place in:
A hilly State or Union Territory having forest cover of more than two-thirds of its geographical area or
Any other State or Union Territory having forest cover of more than one-third of its geographical area then, compensatory afforestation for the diverted land will be carried out in another state with less than 20% of its geographical area covered by forests. Again, such provisions view forests as just trees and not as living and breathing ecosystems that cannot be compensated for by mere afforestation.
The step has met resistance from opposition parties, environmental activists, and the broader climate movement even as the government has defended the new rules. Union Environment Minister Bhupender Yadav took to Twitter to assert that the new rules do not go against the Forest Rights Act and that they are meant to streamline the process.
The Forest Conservation Rules undo a lot of what the FCA and FRA have achieved over the past few years. In their attempt to enhance the ease of doing business, the Ministry of Environment has disturbed the existing structures of forest governance, tribal rights, accountability, and decision-making.
(Also read: Uttarakhand’s Wildfires—A Colonial Offshoot)
Bindra, Prerna. The Vanishing. Penguin Random House India, 2017, p. 9.
Kumar, Dilip. “Defending the Green Realm: The Forest Conservation Act 1980 of India in Theory and Practice.” ISEC Monograph 44, Institute for Social and Economic Change, 2016.
Joshi, Mukta, and Nitin Sethi. Government to Approve Cutting down of Forests without Consent from Tribals and Forest Dwellers. Newslaundry, 7 July 2022, https://www.newslaundry.com/2022/07/07/government-to-approve-cutting-down-of-forests-without-consent-from-tribals-and-forest-dwellers.
Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change. Forest (Conservation) Rules, 2022. The Gazette of India, 28 June 2022, https://parivesh.nic.in/writereaddata/FCRule2022Notificationdated28062022.pdf.
Nandi, Jayashree. Clause for Gram Sabha Consent Missing in Forest Conservation Rules 2022: Critics. Hindustan Times, 13 July 2022,
Grover, Samarth. What Are Forest Conservation Rules 2022? Why Are They Being Criticised? TheQuint, 11 July 2022,