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The Ecotourism Problem That Arises With Proposed Changes to the Forest Act

The Ecotourism Problem That Arises With Proposed Changes to the Forest Act

A tourist drives on a road in Ladakh. Photo: Simon Berger/Unsplash

  • The Union government seems set on diluting the Forest (Conservation) Act’s protections by limiting the scope of the term ‘non-forest purposes’.
  • The Act plays a vital role in regulating ecotourism, an enterprise that doesn’t have a law or policy of its own.
  • The environment ministry has pitched that wildlife tourism and the establishment of zoos and safaris can’t be considered ‘non-forest purposes’.

At a time when India is rapidly losing forest land, the Indian government has been keen to promote ecotourism, and has revamped laws and policies to this effect. One significant change is proposed amendments to the Forest (Conservation) Act 1980 and the newly drafted ‘Guidelines on Ecotourism in Forest and Wildlife Areas 2021’. The fundamental problem lies with how the government plans to introduce these changes.

The International Ecotourism Society defines ecotourism as “responsible travel to natural areas that conserves the environment and improves the well-being of local people”.

In India, ecotourism in forests is not regulated by exhaustive law or policy. Instead, it lies at the intersection of conservation and tourism, and is regulated by the combination of regulatory instruments that apply to them. As forests and wildlife are subject matters in the Concurrent List of the Constitution, both the Centre and states have been regulating ecotourism, along their own tourism policies.

The Forest (Conservation) Act 1980 plays a pivotal role in this regard. It stipulates that no state government or authority can allow forest land to be used for non-forest purposes or to be leased to a private person without the Centre’s approval. ‘Non-forest purposes’ include cultivation of crops like tea, coffee, palm, etc. and any purpose apart from reafforestation. But there are also exemptions for building dams, bridges, check-posts, etc. The Centre can provide its approval in the form of a forest clearance, which has its own elaborate procedure – including scrutiny by senior forest department officers and members of the state government and the Union environment ministry. Some cases also require stakeholder consultation.

The Union government seems set on diluting the Act’s protections by limiting the scope of the term ‘non-forest purposes’. The ministry has already proposed that wildlife tourism and the establishment of zoos and safaris can’t be considered ‘non-forest purposes’, and it has also sought to exclude railway and similar strategic projects from the same ambit.

If the Act is amended to this effect, ecotourism projects inside forests will be exempted as well, and won’t have to go through the elaborate process of obtaining a forest clearance from the Centre. Specifically, the proposed ecotourism guidelines stipulate that construction of temporary structures inside forests for ecotourism purposes won’t be considered to be non-forest activity. On July 23, 2021, in his reply to a question in parliament, environment minister Bhupender Yadav said the same thing.

At first glance, the concession for temporary structures may seem insignificant – but note that ‘temporary structures’ refer to structures erected using natural materials and which can be dismantled – versus permanent structures built using concrete and similar materials that can’t be dismantled. ‘Temporary’ as such denotes the nature of the structure, not the duration of its existence.

This way, officials can set up lodging facilities using wood and other similar natural materials without having to obtain a forest clearance from the Centre first. The process of establishing these structures may be more eco-friendly than erecting a concrete building, say – but the tourism activities that follow may still be harmful to the local biodiversity and ecological integrity.

One could argue that these reforms may not adversely affect the environment because the government could still control ecotourism through the Wildlife Protection Act 1972. This is technically true but there have been instances of both the Union government and the judiciary being displeased by the manner in which state governments and other statutory authorities have assessed and permitted ecotourism. Ecotourism’s job-creating and revenue potential has been known to nudge states to encourage it through quick clearances.

In 2018, for example, the Government of Maharashtra had an ambitious plan to establish more than 300 ecotourism sites by 2022. But the environment ministry was miffed because these projects would amount to the use of forest land for ‘non-forest purposes’. The Maharashtra ecotourism board responded that most of these projects would be eco-friendly and that the Centre would have to accommodate a “practical approach” to these projects, because they would create jobs. Uttarkhand’s ecotourism policies have also been criticised for violating the ministry’s directions, apart from being unsustainable and non-beneficial to local communities.

This is not to suggest that we can’t trust our state governments with ecotourism or that the Union government is inherently more trustworthy. It’s that doing away with such an important safeguard as a forest clearance can only be deleterious. We can only avoid this outcome by introducing a better oversight mechanism. On the flip side, the proposed amendments to the Forest (Conservation) Act and the new ecotourism guidelines haven’t been placed in the public domain, which only hampers public participation. If ecotourism is to be inclusive, the government must consult forest-dwellers and representatives of local communities.

On a similar note, the government must also have meaningful discussions with state governments before proposing reforms that affect state-level governance as well. But if ecotourism policies won’t encompass sustainability and inclusivity, ecotourism itself will become extractive, and the label will be reduced to mere greenwashing.

Rahul Machaiah is a lawyer in Karnataka. Chetan Singai is an associate professor at the M.S. Ramaiah University of Applied Sciences, Bengaluru.

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