(Reuters )
(Reuters )

Why proposed changes to Forest Act have stirred up a hornets’ nest

  • While the govt claims the proposed bill would help in better forest management, activists think otherwise
  • The bill proposes to give higher management powers to forest officers beyond what is provided in the Forest Rights Act, 2006

NEW DELHI : Proposed amendments to the Indian Forests Act, 1927, have pitted forest dwellers and tribal groups against the government over concerns that the changes will increase bureaucratic control while diminishing their rights.

Forest rights activists and tribal welfare organizations say the new law will divest millions of tribal and forest dwellers of their rights. The central government has sent the draft bill to state governments for consultation.

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“It will be devastating if it becomes a law," said Shankar Gopalakrishnan, secretary of the Campaign for Survival and Dignity, a national platform of forest dwellers’ groups. “It not only takes the colonial mindset ahead, but makes the situation worse by adding another layer of militarization/policing to it."

The bill proposes to give higher management powers to forest officers beyond what is provided in the Forest Rights Act, 2006. Its provisions give greater immunity to forest officers using firearms to prevent offences. This, activists say, is 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 government had claimed amending the colonial era law would help better forest governance, and meet developmental aspirations and international commitments. It was also expected to help deal with issues related to forestry. According to the government, the Act would provide for conservation, enrichment and sustainable management of forest resources, safeguard ecological stability and address the concerns related to climate change and international commitment.

“If the bill becomes law, the state government will have the power to take away the rights of forest dwellers if it feels it is not in line with ‘conservation of the proposed reserved forest’, merely by offering some arbitrary amount of cash compensation. This will impact the livelihood of millions of forest dwellers. It is arguably unconstitutional," added Gopalakrishnan.

The bill also retains the provision to punish entire communities by denying access to forests for offences committed by individual members. For instance, if a fire is reported in a reserved forest, under the proposed law, the government may suspend the rights of pasture/forest produce of the entire community in the region for a fixed period.

One major objection is that the amendment overrides the Forest Rights Act (FRA), 2006, which had granted legal recognition to the rights of traditional forest-dwelling communities to land and other resources denied to them over decades.

“FRA had introduced a new paradigm of forest governance, by giving the gram sabhas rights to govern, manage and use community forest resources. But the proposed bill intends to take away those rights from communities and hand them over to private sector and facilitate the diversion of forest land," said Tushar Dash, an independent researcher working with the Community Forest Right, an advocacy group.

The draft bill proposes to allow the government to open any patch of forest it deems fit for commercial plantations and also allows it to assign forests to non-state entities, but not on lease. However, there are concerns this could lead to diversion for non-forest use and commercial exploitation.

On the other side, policy makers say some external regulation is required, especially in view of concerns related to climate change and international commitments to increase forest cover. Another major provision is to create national and state forest funds aided by private companies and promotion of production forests through active involvement of private companies.

“Some regulation is justified, but not hands-on state management, nor corporate ownership. Ultimately, forest-dwellers have a fundamental democratic right to manage their immediate environment. And any external regulation must be transparent and accountable," said Sharad Lele, Distinguished Fellow in Environmental Policy and Governance, Ashoka Trust for Research in Ecology and the Environment (ATREE), Bengaluru.

The debate assumes significance ahead of a Supreme Court hearing on 10 July in the case involving eviction of nearly 1.18 million forest dwellers in as many as 16 states including Chhattisgarh, Maharashtra and Madhya Pradesh, whose claims were rejected under the 2006 Forest Rights Act.

On 13 February, the apex court directed state governments to evict Forest Dwelling Scheduled Tribes and Other Traditional Forest Dwellers, whose claims over forest land were rejected under the 2006 law. However, it led to a wave of protests, following which the Centre intervened, and the Supreme Court ordered a stay asking states to submit detailed affidavits about procedures followed to assess the claims.

Amending the colonial era law has been a long pending demand, which the draft bill may not have addressed fully. “A new law should attempt to change the colonial way for forest governance in India. It needs to be progressive, but also recognize that tribals are integral to the survival of forest ecosystem and conservation of the forests," said Dash.

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