New Delhi: A week is a long time in politics and the Congress party’s changing stance on the Compensatory Afforestation Fund (CAF) bill seems to be an apt example for it.
The bill was once strongly opposed by the Congress. Then, the principal opposition party in Rajya Sabha sought a compromise with the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), but on Monday it would again be back to opposing the bill. However, the bill could still pass muster in the upper House with views of other opposition parties yet unclear.
The CAF Bill, which seeks to facilitate the distribution of around ₹ 42,000 crore among all states for afforestation, has already been passed in the Lok Sabha and is slated for consideration and passing in the Rajya Sabha on Monday.
Interestingly, the Congress has always showcased Forest Rights Act (FRA) 2006 as one of its biggest achievements and claimed the rights of forest dwellers as sacrosanct. The Congress earlier this month termed the Forest Rights Act as the “next big political mobilization" for the party, with its vice-president Rahul Gandhi set to launch an agitation across states on the “betrayal" of the Forest Rights Act.
But a meeting of Congress’s senior leaders—Jairam Ramesh and Digvijaya Singh—with finance minister Arun Jaitley and environment minister A.M. Dave last week seems to have changed their opposition to the bill, at least temporarily.
Under the CFA proposals, money collected under an ad hoc Compensatory Afforestation Fund Management and Planning Authority (CAMPA) comes in lieu of forest land diverted under the Forest (Conservation) Act, 1980, for non-forest purposes, such as industrial projects. The bill is expected to mitigate the impact of such diversion by encouraging afforestation projects across India. Besides the present amount, a fresh accrual of compensatory levies and interest on accumulated unspent money is around ₹ 6,000 crore a year.
The bone of contention, as explained by Jairam Ramesh in a note sent in May to former environment minister Prakash Javadekar who brought the bill to Parliament, is that while under the FRA Act gram sabha (village council) is the final authority on forest land of tribals and other forest-dwellers, the compensatory afforestation bill does not clearly acknowledge the power of such councils.
The Congress had said that the CAF bill should state that the funds will be under gram sabha control rather than under that of forest official-dominated authorities, demanding the bare minimum of informed consent of the concerned gram sabhas for all proposed activities.
The government had said it will bring these changes in the rules but the Congress wanted amendments to the bill stating that the provisions would work only when placed in the statute and not in the rules that the executive passes later.
This opposition from the Congress and others blocked the bill in the budget session. Prime Minister Narendra Modi, in his farewell remarks to retiring Rajya Sabha MPs in May, noted the failure of the upper House to pass the bill. Congress leaders maintain the party’s stand “has not been diluted" and one will have to wait to see which demands the government has agreed to.
“We have some serious objections to the draft bill and our leaders have raised them. But senior ministers have held consultations and we are confident our concerns will be addressed. There is more or less certainty now that we will support the bill when it comes to Rajya Sabha,’’ a senior Congress leader from the upper House said requesting anonymity.
Another Congress leader from Rajya Sabha said that it will move amendments to the bill, but if there is consensus, the party will support it.
‘’There were differences within the party at one point over the bill, but now, there is a general consensus. I don’t think it is a dilution on our stand or making a u-turn because if our concerns get addressed why should we continue opposing without a valid reason,’’ the second leader added.
Meanwhile, concerned over the prospects of the Congress allowing passage of the CAF bill, civil society groups have come together to oppose it expressing fears over its adverse impact on the Forest Rights Act.
Tribal organizations, civil society groups, women’s organizations, researchers and academicians, and concerned ordinary citizens have sent a petition to the chairman of the Rajya Sabha and members of parliament to oppose the Bill.
“By enacting the FRA 10 years ago, the Parliament of India had committed to correct a historical injustice done to the millions of Adivasis and forest dwelling communities. If the CAMPA Bill is now passed by Parliament in its current form, it will represent a reversal of the commitment for justice made in the FRA to the Adivasis and forest dwelling citizens of India," the petition said.