At a time when the Centre is planning to bring a new national forest policy soon, a voluminous draft to amend the Indian Forest Act of 1927 has been brought forth for “consultation with stakeholders”.
In the first-ever such consultation with the forest department of Maharashtra on Thursday, tribal and forest rights activists, including those belonging to RSS constituent Vanvasi Kalyan Ashram, have demanded that the amendment be shelved.
They allege that the proposed amendment seeks to reestablish the forest department’s stranglehold over forest resources that are now accessible to tribals and forest-dwellers owing to legislations like Tribes and Other Traditional Forest Dwellers (Recognition of Rights) Act, Biological Diversity Act and Panchayats (Extension to Scheduled Areas) Act.
This was the first-ever consultation between activists and forest department anywhere in the country over the draft for the proposed Act to be called Indian Forest (Amendment) Act, 2019. Prior to Thursday’s consultation, a consultation was organised at Mumbai between stakeholders and the state tribal affairs department.
Activists participating in the consultations told The Indian Express in unison that the proposed amendment is in total violation of the spirit of the three Acts mentioned above and seeks to facilitate the forest department’s control over forests and their resources.
The draft was prepared by a committee set up on September 13, 2016 and comprising Heads of Forest Forces of Maharashtra, Chhattisgarh, Madhya Pradesh and Manipur, then Inspector General (Forests) Rekha Pai, then DIG (Forest Policy) Noyal Thomas and ADG (Wildlife) M S Negi.
The three non-governmental in the panel were Ravi Shankar of World Wide Fund for Nature, Om Shankar Shrivastav, counsel, NGT-Bhopal, and Supreme Court lawyer Sanjay Upadhyay.
The minutes of the consultations will go to the state Chief Secretary who, after
consultation with tribal affairs and rural development departments, finalise the state’s take on the draft before sending it to the Union Ministry of Environment and Forest and Climate Change.
“Nobody knew that there was some IFA amendment in the offing. We came to know about it from an article published in a magazine in April. The draft was available only in English and not in local language for the real stakeholders, viz gram sabhas, who haven’t been involved in the constellation process at all,” said Milind Thatte of Vayam, an organisation working among tribals in Palghar district.
“There are several provisions in the draft that seek to undermine the provisions of the three progressive legislations that have come up over the past few years to undo historical injustice done to forest-dwellers by colonial legislations like Indian Forest Act (IFA), 1927,” said Mohan Hirabai Hiralal, who spearheaded the community forest rights (CFRs) movement from Gadchiroli’s Mendha-Lekha village.
“It seeks to penalise the entire community and even empower the Forest Department to take away rights granted under FRA if they find any violation like forest fire,” he said.
Nagpur-based activist Dilip Gode said, “The first national forest policy of 1988
had clearly discussed failures of the IFA in terms of technical and scientific management of forests and had underscored that it won’t be possible to do it without people’s participation. Now with the new national forest policy round the corner, The amended IFA seeks to return to the colonial and regressive ways of forest management that seeks to undermine the stake of locals.”
Said activist Brian Lobo of Kashtakari Sanghatana from Palghar, “Weveral proposed provisions in the draft seek to restore the governance of forests to the Forest Department thus undermining the FRA-given control over forests to the dwellers. It’s like empire striking back.”
Sharad Chavan of Vanvasi Kalyan Ashram said, “The proposed amendments seek to take away rights granted to tribals. There is no clarity in the draft about what they want to do. So, it must be rejected lock, stock and barrel. ”
They allege that the new IFA version seeks to have an over-riding effect on the progressive Acts like FRA.
The preamble of the 1927 Act says, “It’s a Act to consolidate the law relating to forest, the transit of forest produce and the duty leviable on timber and other forest produce.”
The draft amendment preamble says, “An Act to provide for conservation,
enrichment and sustainable management of forest resources and matters connected to therewith to safeguard ecological stability to ensure provision of ecosystem services in perpetuaty and to address the concern related to climate change and international commitments.”
The activists pointed out two main “problematic” ideas in the draft — conservation area and production forest. Section 27(A) of the proposed Act says the state government may declare any area as conservation area purportedly for enhanced carbon sequestration and such areas shall be brought under prescribe forest management for enhancing vegetational growth by reforestation and aforestation as a new insertion proposed to achieve nationally determined contribution target (under Paris Climate Change agreement). ”
Lobo says, “It’s too arbitrary and a recipe to take away rights.”
Section 34(C) (1) of the draft provides for declaration of production forest.
“The state government shall notify production forest with specific objective for production of timber, pulpwood, firewood, non-timber forest produce, medicinal plans etc for the specified period after considering the forest productivity and privileges of the local communities.”
The activists see a design to involve private players to exploit national wealth. “They have said that the provisions of Forest Conservation Act of 1980 would apply to it, which provides for giving the job to private parties,” the activists allege.
Another objectionable issue, according to them, is the provision under Section
22(A) provides for acquiring the rights granted under FRA under community and individual categories “if exercise of the right is found inconsistent with the conservation of the proposed reserve forest”. It also seeks to compensate the community monetarily or with alternative land in lieu of such acquisition. They say rights granted under FRA are inalienable.
Principal Chief Conservator of Forest, Maharashtra, U K Agrawal said, “FRA and PESA give only production (of forest produce) rights to people. They don’t give ownership of land to them. The status of reserved forest remains the same and, as such, the principles of scientific forest management do still apply to these forests.
The forest-dwellers are not scientifically equipped to manage the forests. So, the role of IFAN is still there. And in view of the changed circumstances following FRA and PESA, we do need to take a fresh look at IFA and hence the proposed amendment.”