The draft rules, which come nearly one and half years after the Compensatory Afforestation Fund (CAF) Bill was passed by Parliament in July 2016, specify the activities that would be allowed or restricted in a forest area.
As per estimates, about Rs50,000 crore has been collected in lieu of forest land diverted under the Forest (Conservation) Act, 1980, for non-forest purposes such as industrial projects like mining.
However, environmentalists and forest rights activists criticized the draft rules stating they violate the Forest Rights Act (FRA) 2006 and the assurance of then environment minister Anil Madhav Dave to Parliament about addressing certain concerns.
They also said that these will result in further atrocities and crimes against tribals and forest dwellers. FRA Act mandates that gram sabhas (village councils) have both the right and the power to protect, manage and conserve their forests.
Harsh Vardhan-led Union ministry of environment, forest and climate change (MoEFCC) has sought comments, objections and suggestions from all stakeholders on the draft rules in 30 days after which they will be finalized.
According to the proposed rules, 80% of the “net present value (NPV)" can be used for forest and wildlife management activities like assisted natural regeneration, artificial regeneration (by plantations), protection of plantations and forests, pest and disease control in forest, forest fire prevention, soil and moisture conservation works, improvement of wildlife habitat, relocation of villages from protected areas, planting and rejuvenation of forest cover on non-forest land falling in wildlife corridors, establishment, operation and maintenance of animal rescue centre, and veterinary treatment facilities for wild animals and others.
It also said that 20% of the NPV, in a financial year, “shall be utilised for strengthening the forest and wildlife related infrastructure, capacity building of the personnel of state forest departments and other associated agencies and organisations involved in utilisation of these monies".
The draft rules also specified a list of activities that can be undertaken or are not allowed from the fund.
It allowed activities like establishment, upgradation and maintenance of modern nurseries, purchase and maintenance of communication devices, construction, up-gradation and maintenance of inspection paths, forest roads in forest area, fire lines, watch towers, check posts, timber depots, construction of residential and official buildings in forests for concerned staff up to the rank of range officers deployed for protection of forest and wildlife, survey and mapping of forest areas for compensatory afforestation works, soil and moisture conservation, catchment area treatment and wildlife management.
It further said that these activities “shall be taken up in consultation with the Gram Sabha or Van Sanrakshan Samiti (VSS) or Village Forest Committee as the case may be" and shall be in consonance with the provisions of FRA 2006.
The draft rules, however, said that the fund will not be used for activities like payment of salary, travelling allowances, medical expenses to regular employees of the state forest department, undertaking foreign visits, payment for legal services, purchase of cars, construction of residential and official buildings for officers above forest range officers, purchase of furniture or office equipment including air conditioners and establishment, expansion and upgradation of zoo and wildlife safari, among other things.
The draft rules, for sure, will set the government on warpath with organizations and activists working for the rights of forest dwellers who had attacked the CAF Act even when it was passed by Parliament in 2016.
These organizations have repeatedly pointed out that the CAF Act, by design, is flawed and needs repealing or amendment to ensure safeguards for the protection of rights of tribals and forest dwellers. Last week, several tribal organizations in Gujarat came together to launch a campaign opposing implementation of the CAF Act.
When the bill was passed in Parliament, concerns were raised about ensuring primacy of gram sabhas (village councils). The Congress had sought an amendment to ensure the money for afforestation is used only in consultation with gram sabhas claiming that the gram sabhas are the final authority on how forest land can be used under the FRA 2006.
The CAF bill does not clearly acknowledge the power of such councils. However, to ensure the passage of the Act, a compromise was struck between the government and the Congress that these concerns would be addressed in rules once the bill is passed in the Rajya Sabha. The bill was finally passed after Dave assured that such concerns will be addressed in the rules.
Activists said these latest draft rules fail to address the concerns and demands raised by tribal organizations and forest rights groups.
“The environment ministry has breached the solemn assurance given to Parliament for ensuring compliance of FRA. On the contrary, the draft rules violate FRA and have allowed for illegal plantations in community lands," said Tushar Dash of the Community Forest Rights-Learning and Advocacy group. Dash is working with tribals and forest dwellers in Odisha.
He explained that the definition of gram sabha has been diluted in the draft rules.
The draft rules state that compensatory afforestation work can be carried out in consultation with a gram sabha or VSS, but “VSS is not a legal body and cannot be equated with Gram Sabha … This is clearly a strategy to bypass Gram Sabha and engage with VSSs which don’t have any legal standing", said Dash.
“Rules don’t have provision for getting consent of the Gram Sabhas (only mention consultation) and provision for transferring funds to the Gram Sabha," he added.
Forest rights activist Shankar Gopalakrishnan said the draft rules are “clearly a deliberate attempt to bypass the FRA entirely."
"The draft says absolutely nothing about how consultation should be done, and what happens if local communities refuse their consent. There is no reference to consent, no reference to what forms of proof will be required that it has been done, and no reference to completion of recognition of rights," he said.