Altering the umbrella acts: Environment and forest acts' history, goals, and proposed changes

Jul 19, 2022

By: Varnika Srivastava

A century-old legislation

Taking a manoeuvre towards environmental protection, India has taken a series of resolutions over the last 50 years. But it all started with the Indian Forests Act (IFA) 1927, which the British government introduced to secure exclusive state control over forests to meet the demand for timber and not to protect them. Additionally, the act outlined the steps to be taken to designate a space as a Reserved Forest, Protected Forest, or Village Forest

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History of forest acts

IFA 1927 specifies what constitutes a forest offence, what activities are forbidden inside a reserve forest, and what sanctions are applicable for breaking the Act's rules. The first if such regulation was passed in 1865, followed by two amendments in 1878 and 1927, respectively. However, it was only after the Stockholm Conference of 1972, governments worldwide, including India, take environmental legislation more seriously.

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Stockholm Conference 1972

The origins of most environmental legislation like the Air, Water and Environment Acts can be traced back to the United Nations Conference on the Human Environment, held in Stockholm in June 1972 (Stockholm Conference), exactly 50 years ago. The conference highlighted the risks of environmental pollution and put forth steps to improve the human environment.

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The umbrella act for environment protection

The Indian government passed the Environment Protection Act (EPA) in 1986 under article 253 of the constitution. It translates the decisions made at the Stockholm Conference into action and guards Indian forests against illegal logging, forest fire, and desertification of land. The act is called the umbrella act, as it established a framework for coordination between central and state authorities under the Air and Water Acts and led to the formation of The Ministry of Environment and Forests (MoEF).

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Proposed changes in the forest and environment act

The central government recently proposed to soften the provisions of the EPA by replacing imprisonment for minor violations with a steeper fine for certain violations. The proposed changes decriminalise several violations while increasing the penalties by up to 500 times. As the act is meant to protect forest resources, biodiversity, and wildlife, environmentalists fear that such dilution would further affect the fragile ecosystems across the country.

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Changes in several green laws

For example, a proposed amendment to the IFA replaces six months imprisonment for illegally cutting trees and trespassing with a fine of Rs 500. The ministry says that the lack of differentiation between major and minor offences causes habitual offenders to commit more crimes. Calling it a move to “weed out fear of imprisonment for simple violations”, the ministry has reportedly proposed several such changes to IFA, EPA, and Air and Water Acts.

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Major alterations in the act

The Environment ministry had few alterations in the Umbrella act and proposed changes concerning Sections 23 and 33 of the IFA. The amendments seek to decriminalise offences like kindling, keeping, or carrying fire in reserved forests. The substantive changes in Sections 26 (c), (d), and (e) and 33 (e), (f), and (g) of the IFA, 1927 will remove the provision for imprisonment. The changes made in Act aim to be more refined than generic and will result in lower violations.

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Goals and sections under EPA

The EPA is widely considered a response to the Bhopal gas leak tragedy of 1984, aimed to protect and improve environmental quality. The first chapter describes the powers of the Central Government; the second prescribes actions to protect the environment; the third and the fourth chapter outlines state controls over the industries that harm forests. It acts as a bridge between various regulatory agencies under existing laws and provide deterrent punishment to those who endanger the environment.

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Pubic opinion on the alterations of the act

The Ministry of Environment, Forests, and Climate Change (MoEFCC) has issued a public consultation notice, asking for people's opinions and comments on the proposed amendments by July 31.

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