With forest rights in focus ahead of elections, proposed changes to Forest Act draw attention

  • Just ahead of the 2019 elections, India’s environment ministry has proposed to amend the Indian Forest Act 1927.
  • The amendment proposes to grant more power to the forest bureaucracy, encourages large scale afforestation for carbon sequestration and enhances penalties for violations.
  • Experts and organisations working for forest dwellers’ rights are stating that the proposed amendment is anti-tribal people and forest dwellers and plan to challenge it.

Over 90 years after the enactment of the Indian Forest Act (IFA) 1927, a proposed amendment now plans to give more powers to the forest authorities, encourages large scale afforestation for carbon sequestration and enhances penalties for stronger protection of the forests. However, this amendment could also lead to an increase in injustice to forest dwellers.

Environmentalists, experts and organisations working on issues related to the rights of forest dwellers are already up in arms and plan to protest against the controversial amendment at all forums before the amendments are finalised. They also plan to go to court if the amendment is passed without addressing their concerns.

The issue could gain significance in India’s parliamentary elections scheduled for April-May 2019 as political parties are trying to attract the voters who are dependent on forests and of the tribal communities.

Read more: Political parties compete for vote of India’s tribal community

On March 7, 2019, the central government’s Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change (MoEFCC) sent the draft of the proposed amendment to the IFA 1927, to all the states. It asked the state governments to hold state level consultations with all stakeholders including NGOs and civil society organisations on the proposed amendment within 90 days and send a consolidated reply based on the feedback and consultations.

This time period of 90 days overlaps with the timing of the national elections which indicates that the proposed amendments in the IFA 1927 would be finalised by the government formed after the Lok Sabha elections.

What are the amendments?

The preamble of the IFA 1927 notes it as an “Act to consolidate the law relating to forests, the transit of forest-produce and the duty leviable on timber and other forest-produce”. The new draft proposes to widen it substantially, recommending the new preamble to read, “An Act to provide for conservation, enrichment and sustainable management of forest resources and matters connected therewith to safeguard ecological stability to ensure provision of ecosystem services in perpetuity and to address the concerns related to climate change and international commitments.” It also noted that it is in line to “meet the national developmental aspirations and the various international commitments.”

The draft amendment proposed that, “state governments may declare any area as a conservation area for the purpose of enhanced carbon sequestration and such area shall be brought under active forest management for enhancing vegetational growth by reforestation and afforestation.”

In the commitment made to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) in 2015, the government had promised to create “an additional carbon sink of 2.5 to 3 billion tonnes of CO2 (carbon dioxide) equivalent through additional forest and tree cover by 2030.”

By 2030, India aims to create a carbon sink of 2.5 to 3 billion tonnes of CO2 (carbon dioxide) equivalent through additional forest and tree cover. Photo by Tridibchoudhury/Wikimedia Commons.

The draft amendments also proposed to enhance punishments for violation of the IFA including for offences like pollution. It said that anyone who “litters or dumps plastic or any other waste material on the ground, or poisons or dumps plastic and other waste material into the water bodies and streams within or flowing into them, or uses explosives or uses forest area as dumping ground for waste and undesirable substances so as to cause pollution in the forest” shall be liable to punishment.

Forest bureaucracy to get unchecked powers?

But, experts are wary about certain proposals in the amendment which they feel could result in repression of tribal people and forest dwellers and impact their rights over the forests.   

For instance, the proposed amendment allows a forest officer to use firearms to deal with offences under the IFA 1927 and under the Wildlife (Protection) Act 1972 like encroachment of forest area, permitting cattle to trespass, setting fire, removal of forest produce without any authority except under the recognised forest rights, disturbing or harming  animals.

It also notes that no criminal prosecution would be allowed against any officer without the prior sanction of the state government. There was no such provision in the 1927 law.

There have been instances where forest dwellers end up facing cases for allegedly encroaching forest land, even when they state they have been living in forest areas for generations. The Forest Rights Act 2006 provides for recognising and giving forest rights to forest dwelling scheduled tribes and other traditional forest dwellers residing in the forests for generations  whose rights could not be recorded.

Read more: Forest Rights Act: A decade old but implementation remains incomplete

Another cause of concern is the power proposed to be given to state governments to take away the legal rights of tribal people and forest dwellers by arbitrary cash payments, forcing them to relocate. The draft mentions that the state governments could take away the rights of the forest dwellers if the government feels it is not in line with “conservation of the proposed reserved forest” by payment to the people impacted or by the grant of land.

The forest and tree cover of India accounts for nearly 25 percent of India’s total land. Photo by Mayank Aggarwal/Mongabay.

It also held that “where the rules framed by the central government and the state government are in conflict, the former shall prevail.”

Amendments could mean injustice for the forest dwellers

A statement by the Campaign for Survival and Dignity, a national platform of forest dwellers groups, stated that the goal of these amendments is to turn “India’s forests – almost a quarter of the country’s land area – into a police state where the interests of forest bureaucrats and private companies will reign supreme.”

“These amendments would give forest officials the power to shoot people without any liability (with the same legal protection as soldiers in disturbed areas under the Armed Forces (Special Powers) Act); allow forest officials to restrict or cancel legal rights and to relocate people against their will; presume that people they accuse of crimes are guilty if certain materials are claimed to be found on them (a provision similar to anti-terror laws); to hand over forests to private companies for afforestation and to grab other forests in the name of carbon sequestration,” said the statement.

“If passed, these amendments will make forest officials de facto dictators, with more powers than any other government official, more powers, in fact, than those that are given to soldiers, who are at least legally required to hand over anyone they arrest to the normal police. This is nothing short of a declaration of war in forest areas. Who then is the enemy? Is it the country’s tribals and forest dwellers?” the statement added.

“As the Forest Rights Act 2006 itself says, these areas were seized by colonial and post-independence governments in a “historical injustice” against forest dwellers. Now this government wants to double down on that injustice. This is a wholesale attack on the rights of India’s 200 million (20 crore) forest dwellers. But just as a backdoor attempt to get the Forest Rights Act weakened in court failed, this attempt too will fail. Protests are continuing and will intensify,” it added.

Penalties are enhanced and a forest development cess is proposed

The proposed amendment also said that the state governments may levy a cess not exceeding 10 percent of the value of mining products removed from the forests and water used for irrigation or in industries. The cess shall be used exclusively for reforestation, forest protection and other purposes connected with the tree planting, forest development and conservation.

As per the IFA 1927, people found violating the Act can be punished with imprisonment upto one month, or fine upto Rs. 500 or both. The proposed amendment enhances the punishment with provisions for imprisonment ranging from one month to seven years (and more) and fine of Rs. 5,000 to Rs. 500,000.

The proposed amendments also stated that the state government “may recognise and notify private forest at the request of the owner” if the forest is used primarily for environmental conservation and preservation including, protecting water catchments.”

India aims to bring 33 percent of its total land under green cover. Photo by Mayank Aggarwal/Mongabay.

Independent researcher and member of the Community Forest RightsLearning and Advocacy group Tushar Dash said the proposed “amendments violate Forest Rights Act and undermine democratic governance of forest in India by promoting privatisation of forests.”

“These amendments re-establish colonial approach by vesting more power with the forest bureaucracy (even to use force against tribal people and forest dwellers with impunity),” Dash told Mongabay-India.

The draft further stated that the central government shall constitute a National Forestry Board with the prime minister as chairperson and environment minister as vice chairperson which will meet at least once a year.The revision of the IFA 1927 has been on the cards since the current government came into power in May 2014.

The government had constituted a high level committee headed by the former cabinet secretary T.S.R Subramanian to assess the implementation, to recommend and draft specific amendments in six of India’s major environmental and forest laws including the IFA 1927. The committee had given its report in November 2014 but its implementation was put on hold after massive protests from organisations and experts across the country.

Dash stressed that this is not the first time that this government has taken or is proposing to take actions that are against the interests of the forest dwellers and supporting privatisation and takeover of land and forests. As examples he cited the central government’s inaction to defend the FRA in the Supreme Court, commercial diversion of forest areas and the the inadequate implementation of the Compensatory Afforestation Fund Act.

Last year, the central government brought the Compensatory Afforestation Fund (CAF) Rules, 2018 which gives the control on funds of over Rs. 660 billion, to be spent on afforestation, in the hands of the forest bureaucracy rather than gram sabhas. The government also came out with a draft national forest policy which sought to privatise the forests and suggested a policy to leasing of wasteland to the corporate sector for re-greening.

“We are planning to take up the issue both at state and national level. It is a crucial issue which people should be aware about,” said Shankar Gopalakrishnan, who is the secretary of the Campaign for Survival and Dignity.


Banner image: Forest dwellers and tribal people are dependent on forests for their livelihood. Photo by Mayank Aggarwal/Mongabay.

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