August 13, 2023

Two Dangerous Bills Passed by Parliament

CONTINUING with its avowed policy of throwing open the country’s natural resources for exploitation by private capital without regard to either the people or the environment, the Modi government has rushed through parliament two laws that will have dire consequences. One is to amend the Forest (Conservation) Act (FCA) and the other to amend the Mines and Mineral (Development and Regulation) (MMDR) Act. Passed in 1980, the FCA had strict provisions for preventing arbitrary de-reservation of lands designated as forests. The intention was to conserve the forests from reckless depredation. Some exemptions were included later, in 2006, through the Scheduled Tribes and Other Traditional Forest Dwellers (Recognition of Forest Rights Act), known as FRA, to give rights of land to tribal communities and for providing basic amenities to them. What the bill introduced by the Modi government does is to dilute the definition of forests and weaken the whole regulatory structure of the existing law by providing a slew of exemptions for building roads, railway lines, security infrastructure, defence camps, wireless stations, bridges, trenches, pipelines, and even for zoos, safaris and eco-tourism facilities. It redefines the concept of forests as set out by the Supreme Court in 1996, whereby those areas not defined as forest were to be treated as “deemed forest”. The bill overrides the FRA provisions of mandatory consent from gram sabhas and other monitoring committees, thus leaving tribal communities completely defenceless against the takeover of their lands. In one fell blow, not only will forests become open to destruction but their dwellers will be displaced. It is clear that this is being done to get rid of the regulatory limits, put by laws and Supreme Court orders, to takeover of forest lands.

These far reaching changes are a continuation of the relentless dismantling of environmental regulatory framework by the Modi government in its decade of rule. Previous measures (introduced either as amendments or even office orders) include dilution of Environmental Impact Assessment rules, coastal zone regulations, etc. Along with the Forest Conservation Act amendment, the government also got the amendment to Biological Diversity Act passed in similar fashion. This change will decriminalise offences under the Act, and blurs the definition of ‘codified traditional knowledge’, while exempting AYUSH practitioners from the law. All this will open the way to unbridled extraction of flora and fauna driven by corporate interests, especially pharmaceutical entities.

The second amendment law passed by the parliament in this monsoon session dilutes and changes the regulation of mines and minerals. Under the original Act, exploration for minerals prohibited destructive actions like digging and drilling except under strict conditions. However, after the amendment, pitting, trenching, drilling, and sub-surface excavation during the preliminary survey process have been permitted. Compulsory forestry clearance will no longer be necessary to start exploration projects of this nature in forested areas. As is well known, a large proportion of the mineral wealth of the country lies under forested areas. With these changed laws in place, any corporate body can launch full scale destructive exploration without regard to the forest cover or to the people residing in the area. In this aspect, the convergence of the two amending laws – FCA and MMDR – becomes clear. Moreover, the auctioning of mining rights was usually under state government jurisdiction barring a few specified cases which were dealt with by the central government. But the amended law has centralised the rights to such strategic minerals like lithium, cobalt, nickel, potash, tin, and phosphate. Additionally, the new law vests the central government with authority to issue special exploration licenses for 29 minerals, including gold, silver, copper, etc. Six metals – lithium, beryllium, niobium, titanium, tantalum and zirconium – have been removed from the restricted “atomic minerals” category list, allowing private entities to undertake mining and exploration for them. The new MMDR provisions also exclude various duties and levies (ex-mine price) from the calculation of average sale price (ASP) of minerals. All these changes are aimed at attracting private investment and facilitating the profitable exploitation of natural resources, including the metals like lithium that are much in demand these days.

The Modi government’s naked pro-corporate stance permeates all its policies – from giving tax cuts and concessions to diluting protective labour laws to help boost profits, from handing over public sector assets and infrastructure to private entities to opening up strategic sectors like coal mining, atomic energy and even defence to private capital, both domestic and foreign. It is in this larger framework that the reckless changes made to environmental laws and rules should be seen. While the government boasts of great concern for protecting the environment and fighting against climate change, in reality it is driving the country towards more environmental destruction at the cost of its people.

(August 09, 2023)