NEW DELHI : After widespread criticism from tribal communities across states, the government on Friday announced that it has decided to withdraw a contentious draft bill to amend the Indian Forests Act, 1927.

The zero draft proposed in March this year had sparked protests among various tribal organizations over some of the proposed changes, which pitted the forest-dwellers against the government. The tribal organizations argued that if it became a law, the bill would give government the power to divest the forest dwellers of their rights.

However, on Friday, Union Minister for Environment, Forests and Climate Change, Prakash Javadekar, said that a ‘wrong impression’ was created that the government wants to amend the IFA, 1927 or do away with pro-tribal provisions of the Act.

“It was a ‘zero draft’. It was mistakenly taken as a ‘government draft’ and circulated. Eleven states have drafted their own forest laws. This was just prepared by ministry officials to study how various forest laws can be put together in one draft and circulated. But now we have decided to withdraw the complete draft," Javadekar attempted to clarify.

The announcement comes ahead of the crucial Assembly polls in Jharkhand scheduled for December. The state has considerable population of Scheduled Tribe (ST) community and the move could be aimed at appeasing the large voter-base. The stakes are high for Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) because the ruling party is a dominant force in states like Chhattisgarh, Rajasthan, Odisha and Maharashtra where there is a substantial population of the tribal community.

Javadekar was accompanied by Minister of Tribal Affairs, Dr Arjun Munda in the briefing and continued to emphasize that the government was committed to the welfare of the tribal and forest-dwellers and does not intend to take away the rights. “Forest dwellers have played integral role in the preservation of forests. They are the important stakeholders in forest development and government will take measures to sustain their livelihood," he added.

The tribal organizations welcomed the move, but questioned the misleading statements of the Union Minister.

“It is interesting, but misleading, because the letter was sent by the Environment Ministry on March 7 by IG (Forests) to all forest departments of all states, stating that it was a comprehensive first draft of the amendment, inviting comments and asking state governments to hold consultations. So the statements are quite contradictory. Secondly, its too late to withdraw, as some states have already begun consultations," said Tushar Dash, an independent researcher working with the Community Forest Right, an advocacy group.

The draft Bill had stirred up a hornet’s nest as it proposed to give management powers to forest officers and greater immunity to using firearms to prevent offences. According to tribal organizations, this was even higher than powers available to certain categories of public servants under Section 197 of Criminal Procedure 1973, akin to immunity granted in conflict zones.

“The proposed amendments would have made forest officials the most powerful officials in the country, with the power to arrest, raid, seize and shoot to kill without facing any accountability - powers that even the security forces do not enjoy in disturbed areas," stated Campaign for Survival and Dignity-national forum for forest dwellers.

Gyan Verma contributed to this story

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