After the 1990s, the enactment of Provisions of the Panchayats (Extension to Scheduled Areas) Act (PESA) and Forest Rights Act (FRA) by the government in response to movements by tribal and forest- dwelling communities established a new paradigm of democratic governance seeking to correct historical injustice. It did so by restoring rights to forest dwelling communities and by empowering Gram Sabhas to govern and manage forests.
However, proposed amendments negate the principles of democratic governance and are in conflict with FRA, PESA and the Fifth Schedule to the Constitution.
The FRA had introduced a new category of forests, ‘Community Forest Resources (CFRs)’, which includes all types of forest lands, including Reserve Forests and Protected Forests notified under the Indian Forest Act (IFA). This empowered the communities to conserve and manage the forests.
It reaffirmed the efficacy of a democratic approach to forest governance and conservation that gives primacy to the legal rights of local communities and empowers Gram Sabhas—a model which has been adopted by many countries.
However, the IFA amendments completely negate this idea of democratic governance of forests. While FRA empowers Gram Sabhas to be the competent authority to determine rights of forest dwelling communities, the IFA amendments propose settlement of rights by the Forest Settlement Officer.
Tribal and forest dwellers have been bearing the brunt of a large number of forest offence cases filed by the forest department for bonafide livelihood activities such as cultivation and collection of minor forest products, which are recognized as rights under FRA. The IFA amendments, by giving complete powers to the forest department, will only serve to further criminalize forest dwellers and create fear and lead to increasing violations on ground.
The IFA amendments promote privatisation of forests by seeking to create ‘production forests’ for privatized commercial exploitation at a large scale. The idea comes from the draft National Forest Policy, which seeks to promote production forests through active involvement of private sector companies. It also proposes to set up national and state forest funds from corporate/CSR funding, which would allow the private sector to have greater say in forest management.
The IFA amendments are being seen as a major push back and reversal of forest governance reforms, and are likely to encourage forest bureaucracy to regain control over forests from tribal communities.
Tribal organizations have demanded withdrawal of the IFA amendments, as well as other laws and policies, conflicting with tribal rights and the FRA. It is a challenge for the political leadership and the new government to further strengthen India’s forest governance reforms by withdrawing the proposed IFA amendments and other such regressive laws and policies, and to work for better implementation of the FRA.
Tushar Dash is a researcher working on forest rights.