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New Delhi: Offering its conditional support to pass the Compensatory Afforestation Fund (CAF) Bill, which will unlock 42,000 crore for states, the Congress party on Wednesday asked the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP)-led National Democratic Alliance (NDA) government to accept their amendment that will ensure that the money for afforestation is used only after approval from gram sabhas (village councils).

“There are no provisions for encouraging and supporting community-led afforestation efforts. The most successful examples of afforestation are of community-led afforestation and there is no mention of that in the bill. There is no mention of gram sabhas and panchayats. The committees that have been proposed at the national and state level are stacked heavily in favour of bureaucrats and civil servants and not in enough of people who have actually experience in afforestation," said Congress leader and former environment minister Jairam Ramesh while speaking in the Rajya Sabha.

“I am afraid we are doing bypass surgery on the Forest Rights Act (FRA) 2006. My amendment says that CAMPA funds will be used only in consonance with implementation of the Forest Rights Act 2006... that without permission of gram sabhas the CAMPA fund will not be used," Ramesh added, while appealing to the government to accept it and all parties to support it.

He highlighted that in both FRA and the land acquisition bill the role of gram sabhas is fundamental.

Seeking their support, Ramesh reminded the Left parties and the Mamata Banerjee-led Trinamool Congress of their important role in passing the FRA Act 2006 that ensured justice for tribals and forest dwellers.

The CAF bill seeks to facilitate the distribution of around 42,000 crore among all states for afforestation, has already been passed in the Lok Sabha. The fund 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 like mines.

The debate for consideration and passing of the bill, however, was cut short on Wednesday and will now continue in Rajya Sabha on Thursday.

Tribal organizations, civil society groups, women’s organizations, researchers, academicians and concerned ordinary citizens have already sent a petition to the chairman of the Rajya Sabha and members of Parliament to oppose the bill in its current form.

“The bill is fundamentally opposed to democratic forest governance established under FRA Act and against the rights of tribals and forest dwellers. It requires substantial changes. We are closely monitoring what the final outcome of the bill would be. If it is passed in present form it would be a major threat to rights and livelihood of tribals," said Tushar Dash, an Odisha-based environment researcher.

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