New Delhi: The Compensatory Afforestation Fund (CAF) Bill, 2016 was cleared by the Rajya Sabha on Thursday, paving the way for distribution of ₹ 42,000 crore among states to expand India’s forest cover.
The passage of the bill, which has already been approved by Lok Sabha, was described as “a black day for forest dwellers’ rights" by non-governmental organizations working for welfare of tribals and forest dwellers.
The CAF bill, which could not clear the Rajya Sabha hurdle during the budget session, got smooth passage after the National Democratic Alliance (NDA) government agreed to certain demands made by the Congress party, which sought an amendment to ensure the money for afforestation is used only in consultation with gram sabhas (village councils).
The Congress had claimed that gram sabhas are the final authority on how forest land can be used under the Forest Rights Act (FRA), 2006.
The CAF bill does not clearly acknowledge the power of such councils.
The compromise was reached last week at a meeting of Congress’s senior leaders—Jairam Ramesh and Digvijay Singh—with finance minister Arun Jaitley and environment minister Anil Madhav Dave. It was decided that Congress’s concerns would be addressed in rules once the bill is passed in the Rajya Sabha.
The debate on the bill concluded on Thursday evening when Ramesh offered limited support to the CAF bill.
Environment minister Dave assured the House that the rules “would provide for necessary consultations with gram sabhas".
“I would also assure the House that in case the rules are not found adequate in addressing the issues, we will revisit them after a lapse of a year or so," Dave added.
Prior to his assurance, senior Congress leader Digvijay Singh had said that though he supported the bill’s objective, he opposed the procedures mandated under it.
“The state authorities to be formed under the bill are heavily stacked in favour of officials and do not include MPs, MLAs or tribals. Officials will do all the planning and implementation," Singh said.
Dave assured the members that the rules for the bill would be prepared only after exhaustive consultations during which the government would “consider all suggestions".
The fund of ₹ 42,000 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.
Of the ₹ 42,000 crore, Odisha ( ₹ 6,000 crore), Chhattisgarh ( ₹ 3,861 crore) Madhya Pradesh ( ₹ 3,460 crore), Jharkhand ( ₹ 3,099 crore), Maharashtra ( ₹ 2,433 crore), Andhra Pradesh ( ₹ 2,223) and Uttarakhand ( ₹ 2,210 crore) are expected to be the biggest beneficiaries.
Activists working with tribals, however, described the passage of the bill as “a black day for forest dwellers’ rights".
“This bill essentially gives a carte blanche to forest officials to spend gigantic amounts of money without any accountability to the people whose forests, lands and lives will be damaged or destroyed by their activities," Campaign for Survival and Dignity, a group of tribal and forest dwellers’ organizations, said in a statement.
“For 150 years, forest-dwellers of this country have fought a criminal and oppressive colonial system for their rights. It was their democratic struggle that resulted in the Forest Rights Act, 2006. It is their struggle that will halt the forest bureaucracy in its tracks—no matter how much the NDA government tries to bend over backwards to please its bureaucrat allies and its corporate masters. The environment ministry will be held to its assurance today," the group said in the statement.