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Amendment In Forest Rules: Justified?

Context

 Under the Forest (Conservation) Act of 1980, the MoEFCC has notified Forest (Conservation) Rules 2022.

Relevance

GS Paper 3 – Indian Environment – Degradation and Protection of the Environment

Mains Question:

Explain the importance of the Environment Impact Assessment (EIA) process in India. Also, emphasise the issues that are associated with it. Comment on how far the new forest law amendments are justified.


Concerning the proposals

  • The government wishes to decriminalise the provisions in order to eliminate the fear of imprisonment for “simple” violations, with a proposal to increase the penalty from Rs 1 lakh to Rs 5 lakh, rather than imprisonment for the first default (originally up to five years).
  • For a second offence, the penalty would become more ambiguous. It will be considered equivalent to the damage done.
  • If the defaulter fails to pay both the original and additional penalty, he or she will be imprisoned.
  • Those who are dissatisfied with the adjudicating officer’s decision may appeal to the National Green Tribunal (NGT).
  • The government intends to establish an environment protection fund into which the penalties imposed by adjudicating officers under the revised rules will be deposited.
  • The fund will be used to help those who have been affected.

The New Rules:

  • Establish an advisory committee, a regional empowered committee, and a screening committee at the state/UT level.
  • Integrated Regional Office: It will investigate all linear projects (e.g., roads, highways, etc.) involving up to 40 hectares of land and the use of forest land with a canopy density of 0.7.
  • Time frame: A set time for each project to be reviewed.
  • State responsibility: States are responsible for resolving forest dwellers’ forest rights (Forest Rights Act, 2006) and allowing forest land diversion.
  • Allows compensatory afforestation (CA) in other states: If the state already has more than two-thirds of its land covered in green cover or more than one-third of its land covered in forest cover, CA can be taken in other states/UTs where the cover is less than 20%.

The Ministry and the Mission

  • The Union Environment Ministry, which is in charge of protecting India’s forests and environmental assets, has proposed amending key environmental legislation to make it less intimidating to potential violators.
  • India has eight cornerstone pieces of legislation that define a regulatory framework to ensure that natural resources are not indiscriminately exploited, that acts of pollution are prosecuted, and that there is a mechanism in place to punish and deter violators
  • There is also a provision for prison sentences to be extended to seven years. According to the proposed new amendments, the Ministry wants to eliminate “fear of imprisonment for simple violations,” and thus such violations will only result in monetary fines.
  • Serious environmental crimes that cause serious injury or death, on the other hand, would result in imprisonment under the Indian Penal Code.
  • These fines would be determined by an “adjudication officer” and transferred to a “Environmental Protection Fund.”
  • Furthermore, the potential fines have been increased from more than one lakh rupees to up to five crore rupees.

What are the problems?

  • The proposal’s goal is to weaken the penal provisions. They would result in the relaxation of environmental laws and the establishment of a business-friendly regime.
  • India is facing environmental challenges. For example, the country is one of the worst-affected by climate-related disasters in the world.
  • There are arguments for keeping environmental laws as strict as possible.
  • Historically, India has adhered to the principle of climate justice and has made environmental protection non-negotiable.
  • What are the other government initiatives that appear to be causing major concern?
  • In 2014, the government approved the establishment of factories in eight severely polluted belts.
  • Mid-sized polluting industries were permitted to operate within 5 km of eco-sensitive areas rather than 10 km.
  • The effluent standards for thermal power plants have been relaxed. Furthermore, ecologically sensitive areas (ESA) and coastal regulation zones (CRZ) were denotified.
  • The proposed amendments to the Forest Act aim to allow safaris, zoos, mining, and other non-forest uses on forest land.
  • The government has increased its influence in environmental decision-making bodies. For example, the number of independent members on the National Board for Wildlife has been reduced from 15 to 3.
  • The government also attempted to play a larger role in the appointment of the NGT chairman. The Supreme Court, however, stayed the decision.

The Long-Due debate

  • The debate over whether the threat of imprisonment serves as a deterrent has a long history, with both supporters and detractors.
  • The proposed amendments do not address the destruction of forests and wildlife, which constitute a significant portion of environmental crime, and would continue to invite existing penalties.
  • According to research on environmental crime in the United States and Europe, fining is the most common form of punishment.

India’s Perplexing Case

  • India has a long history of corporate violations and a painfully slow redress system. According to the Centre for Science and Environment, it took Indian courts between 9 and 33 years to clear a backlog of environmental cases.
  • Beginning in 2018, nearly 45,000 cases were pending for trial, with an additional 35,000 cases added that year. In five of the seven major environmental laws, more than 90% of cases were awaiting trial.

Conclusion

  • While fines may theoretically aid in faster redress, large environmental fines will continue to be contested in courts, contributing to the current practise of tardy justice.
  • In India, where environmental regulation is ineffective, the threat of imprisonment may have served as a deterrent.
  • Before tinkering with the law to make it less intimidating, justice for environmental crimes must be served quickly and equitably.
  • At all times, the balance between growth and environmental sustainability must be maintained.

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