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Mizoram Assembly unites against new Forest Act

Aizawl: In a remarkable display of bipartisanship, the Mizoram Legislative Assembly on Tuesday unanimously adopted an official resolution opposing the recent Forest (Conservation) Amendment Act, 2023, passed by the Parliament. 

The resolution, moved by the Minister for Environment, Forests, and Climate Change, T J Lalnuntluanga, carried the collective voice of the assembly in its endeavour to safeguard the rights and interests of the people of Mizoram.

During the constructive deliberations, MLAs from different political affiliations, including the sole BJP representative Dr B D Chakma, wholeheartedly lent their support to the resolution. 

Minister Lalnuntluanga, while presenting the resolution, underlined the state government’s long-standing opposition to the legislation, dating back to October 2021. He emphasised the exhaustive efforts of Mizoram in expressing its concerns regarding the proposed Forest (Conservation) Amendment Bill, 2023, conveyed through numerous correspondences to the Ministry of Environment, Forests, and Climate Change, as well as the Joint Parliamentary Committee (JPC) tasked with reviewing the amendment.

“Despite receiving an overwhelming 1,309 protest letters and communications, the JPC proceeded with the proposed bill’s approval,” Lalnuntluanga stated, highlighting the bill’s contentious passage through both the Lok Sabha on July 26 and the Rajya Sabha on August 2, amidst the backdrop of discussions over the Manipur violence.

The minister underscored Mizoram’s vulnerability as a small state sharing 722 kilometers of international borders with Myanmar and Bangladesh. He stressed that the state’s forest cover could face obliteration if Section 2, Sub-section (i) of the amendment were to be implemented in Mizoram.

Amendment of section 2 grants the central government the authority to utilise forest lands within a hundred-kilometer radius of international borders, Line of Control, or Line of Actual Control for the construction of strategic linear projects of national significance and related to national security, without seeking forest clearance.

During the discussions on the official resolution, some assembly members raised questions regarding the potential applicability of Article 371G, a special provision for Mizoram, against the implementation of the Forest (Conservation) Amendment Act, 2023.

Article 371G (iv) of the Constitution asserts that “No Act of Parliament in respect of ownership and transfer of land shall apply to the State of Mizoram unless the Legislative Assembly of the State of Mizoram resolves otherwise.”

The implications of the Act are poised to leave vast swathes of the already dwindling forests in the Northeastern region without the protective coverage afforded by the existing Forest Conservation Act, 1980 (FCA 1980). The new amendment seeks to exempt certain categories of land from the protective provisions of the FC Act 1980.

Stretching across the sensitive states of Meghalaya, Mizoram, Nagaland, Tripura, and Manipur, the FC Act 1980 has historically enforced stringent regulations for diverting forests for non-forest activities. However, the new amendment introduces relaxed restrictions for specific types of land.

Experts underscore the amendment’s apparent objective of opening forest lands for commercial use and corporate interests. The impact of this amendment is most pronounced in the Northeastern region, recognized as a biodiversity hotspot and bounded by five foreign countries. The region’s delicate ecosystem could face exacerbated risks if projects and infrastructure are initiated in these ecologically sensitive areas without stringent clearance regulations, warn conservationists.

Prominent environmentalist in Aizawl, Vanramchhuangi, also known as Ruatfela Nu, remarked that while the Act’s repercussions would reverberate throughout the nation, the Northeastern states would bear the brunt due to the proposed removal from the FC Act 1980’s purview.

She emphasised, “The proposed exemption applies to forest lands chosen as sites for ‘national security’ and ‘national importance’ infrastructure within 100 kilometers of international borders. This significantly impacts states like Mizoram, Nagaland, Manipur, and Tripura, given their geographical dimensions falling within the 100-kilometer radius.”

States like Mizoram, Tripura, and Nagaland, which are surrounded by foreign countries, are particularly vulnerable to the amendment’s ramifications, as Vanramchhuangi noted.

The present scenario already witnesses numerous projects near international borders, leading to extensive deforestation without sufficient adherence to tree-felling regulations, border outpost infrastructure, and strategic road development.

Observers and activists stress that this open-ended clause could leave the forests of these states exposed to exploitation without the safeguards of the FC Act 1980. While the amendment specifies that exemptions are subject to conditions, including tree planting compensations, experts underline the vulnerability of the Northeastern region, which hosts extensive unclassified forests. These forests were previously protected under the FC Act 1980 following a landmark Supreme Court judgment in 1996.

The region’s biodiverse ecosystems stand at risk, requiring careful consideration to ensure sustainable development while safeguarding the environment for future generations.

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