A day after Prime Minister Narendra Modi rued that Rajya Sabha failed to pass the Compensatory Afforestation Fund Bill, Congress Saturday hit out at the government for not accepting the amendments proposed by opposition parties.
Lashing out at Modi, senior Congress leader Jairam Ramesh said that the Prime Minister “failed” to mention that his own government’s “inexplicable” decision of not including any provisions for respecting the rights of forest dwellers led to failure of the passage of the Bill in the Upper House.
Ramesh said that it is upto the government to explain why it is so keen on transferring thousands of crores to forest bureaucrats without any measures to ensure that these funds are “not misused”.
“The Prime Minister failed to mention that the reason this Bill could not be passed was his own government’s inexplicable decision to not include any provisions in the Bill for respecting the rights of forest dwellers bestowed by the Forest Rights Act, 2006 when engaging in afforestation projects,” Ramesh said.
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The Lok Sabha during the recently concluded session had passed the CAF Bill which aims to pave the way for “unlocking” of nearly Rs 41,000 crore earmarked for forest land which is lying unspent for about four years.
“It is for the Prime Minister to explain why his government is so keen on transferring thousands of crores to forest bureaucrats without any measures to ensure that these funds are not misused and that the rights of our country’s poorest people are protected,” Ramesh said.
Modi had said,”States would have got Rs 42,000 crore if we had decided on the legislation,” he said, adding each state would have got Rs 2000-3000 crore.
Noting that the amendments were also supported by CPM, JD(U) and TMC, Ramesh said that this was done at a time when plantation activities of forest authorities are resulting in conflicts across the country.
“When the opposition gave notice for amendments to this effect, the government could have accepted them; but instead of doing so, the government chose to defer the Bill.
“This shows clearly that the government does not intend to respect forest rights, as is apparent from its moves to lease forest lands to private companies and similar steps,” he said.
The bill aims at ensuring expeditious utilisation of accumulated unspent amounts available with the ad hoc Compensatory Afforestation Fund Management and Planning Authority (CAMPA) which is presently around Rs 41,000 crore.
The former Environment Minister said that the Bill requires amendment to ensure that it does not result in the wholesale and gross violation of forest dwellers’ rights.
“The reasons why this amendment is required are threefold – experiences and likely problems that will occur in implementation, the legal provisions of the Forest Rights Act itself and principles of law that require such provisions to be placed in the statute and not in the rules,” he said.
Noting that all office bearers in the institutions under the Bill are forest officials, Ramesh said that it is clear that the proposed structure will be entirely dominated by forest officials which will lead to conflicts.
Elaborating on it, he said that plantations are often undertaken by forest officials on lands that are used by individual forest dwellers for cultivation or by communities for common purposes on which their rights are yet to be recognised.
“They may also harm local ecosystems that forest dwellers depend on. This has led to frequent conflict and deprivation of rights. Violent conflicts due to forest dwellers being evicted by forest departments from lands being cultivated by them for plantations have been reported from Chhattisgarh, Telengana, Jharkhand and other states.
“It is not our argument and it is not the purpose of the proposed amendment to prevent these funds from being spent. The question is – should this spending be completely in the hands of corrupt forest bureaucrats who have a track record of depriving people of their rights? Or should there be at least minimal safeguards to protect legal rights under the FRA?,” he said.
He said that as the CAF Bill proposes to spend money on “artificial regeneration (plantations), assisted natural regeneration, protection of forests, forest related infrastructure development and others and that such activities would fall “squarely, entirely and exclusively” within the power of the Gram Sabhas as envisaged under Sec 5 and 3(1)(i) of FRA.