The Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change (MoEF&CC) has released the draft of the comprehensive amendments to the Indian Forest Act, 1927 (IFA). However, the amendments have been criticized as an attempt by the central government to grab natural resources owned by tribals for generations.
About Indian Forest Act, 1927
- Britishers imposed the Indian Forest Act, 1927 to take over Indian forests, use them to produce timber, while curtailing and extinguishing rights of millions.
- The Act empowered the Government and the Forest Department to create Reserved Forests, and the right to use Reserved Forests for Government use alone.
- It defines what a forest offence is, what are the acts prohibited inside a Reserved Forest, and penalties leviable on violation of the provisions of the Act.
- But the law has been criticized for years for providing immense discretion and powers to the forest bureaucracy.
- Forest officials could govern areas declared as forestlands of different types and hence arrest and prosecute forest-dwellers.
What are the key features of 2019 amendments?
Community: It defines community as a group of persons (specified according to the government records) living in a specific area and jointly possesses/enjoy common property resources, irrespective of race, religion, caste, language, and culture.
Forest: is defined to include, “any government or private or institutional land recorded or notified as forest/forest land, the lands managed by government/community as forest and mangroves, and also any land which the central or state government may by notification declare to be forest for the purpose of this Act.
Conservation: It shifts the focus from transport and taxation of forest produce to conservation, enrichment and sustainable management of forest resources and related matters = safeguard ecological stability and address the concerns related to climate change and international commitments.
Role of state government: If the state government feels that the rights under Forest Rights Act will affect conservation initiatives = the state may affect such rights by providing compensation or provide some other forest land of sufficient extent in a reasonable locality to the forest-dwelling communities.
Production forests: The draft introduces a new category of forests named production forests for the purpose of production of timber, pulp, pulpwood, firewood, non-timber forest produce, medicinal plants or any forest species in order to increase production in the country for a certain period.
- Some offences that were earlier bailable have been proposed to be made non-bailable.
- The responsibility of proving innocence in many cases has been left on the accused who are to be presumed guilty till proven otherwise.
- The accused has to prove that s/he is in lawful possession of forest land, forest produce, and has not committed any offence against the Act.
- The draft law also proposes to provide immunity to Forest-officer using arms, etc. from legal actions in order to prevent the forest offence.
- This is in addition to the immunity provided under section 197 of the Code of Criminal Procedure 1973 for certain categories of Public Servant.
- The immunity under the draft forest law is higher than what other government officers are usually provided.
- It is similar to the one provided under laws imposed in conflict zones, like the Armed Forces Special Powers Act (AFSPA).
- Even state governments would not be allowed to grant permission for prosecution without first constituting an inquiry by an authority.
- The colonial provision of collective punishment of community for crimes committed by individual/s under the forest law has been retained.
- This applies for
- Fire is wilfully caused or by negligence in a reserved forest.
- Theft of forest produce.
- Grazing by cattle.
- The State Government may then suspend the exercise of all rights of pasture or to forest-produce to all dwellers in the region, for a particular period.
Infrastructure – The State Government/UT Administration shall –
- Develop the infrastructure for standardized lock-up rooms for housing the accused.
- Provide for transportation of accused.
- Provide essential articles for holding the accused(s), armouries, safe custody of arms, ammunition, etc.
The State/UT should provide these to the Forest-officers for enforcing the provisions of the Act in each forest division of the country within two years.
What are the concerns with the draft?
Bureaucratic control of forests: It strengthens the idea of bureaucratic control of forests by providing immunity for actions like the use of firearms by officers to prevent an offence. Thus the draft law largely retains as well as enhances the policing and quasi-judicial powers that forest officials enjoyed under the original act.
The hard-line policing approach:
- Is reflected in the focus on creating an infrastructure to detain and transport the accused and to penalise whole communities by denial of access to forests for offences committed by individuals.
- Such provisions affect poor inhabitants and run against the empowering and egalitarian goals under the Forest Rights Act.
Fuel extremism: The empowerment of forest bureaucracy may alienate tribals and also fuel left-wing extremism (Naxals) in the central Indian region.
Arbitrary: The provision that the state governments could take away the rights of the forest dwellers in the name of conservation efforts is just arbitrary and running counter to the objectives of the Forest Rights Act.
Evaluation and scrutiny:
- For decades now, the Forest Department has resisted independent scientific evaluation of forest health and biodiversity conservation outcomes.
- Also, the environmental policy has weakened public scrutiny of decisions on diversion of forests for destructive activities.
- Further, the Impact assessment reports are mostly not taken seriously, and the public hearings process has been diluted.
- The draft law doesn’t address but further increase such concerns.
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What are the arguments in favour?
- Forest officials often argue that they remain the sole face of administration over these vast difficult-to-access terrains.
- They have the difficult responsibility of retaining the quality and extent of forest cover.
- This becomes particularly challenging due to high population pressure and development activities.
- It is in this context that the Centre proposes to increase forest officials’ police powers as well as capacities over forestlands.
What is the way forward?
- Prevent exploitation: According to the State of Forest Report 2017 by MoEFCC, the total forest and tree cover are 24.39% of the geographical area of the country. However, only 2.99% of India’s geographic area is classified as very dense forest which is a concern. Hence, all suitable landscapes should be recognised as forests and be insulated from commercial exploitation.
- Collaborative conservation: The new law should expand India’s forests and ensure the well-being of traditional forest-dwellers and biodiversity in these landscapes. Therefore, a community-led, scientifically proven conservation should happen in order to reduce conflicts, incentivise tribals and stop diversion of forests for non-forest purposes.
- Consultation with all stakeholders: The centre must consult all stakeholders and communities including independent scientific experts to ensure that the law is adopted by all states, including those that have their own versions of the existing act.
Indian forests play an important role in moderating the lives of Adivasis and other traditional dwellers, as well as everyone in the subcontinent. They have a wider impact with respect to climate and monsoons. Therefore, the proposed law should consider all these factors for sustainable expansion of Indian forests, rather than just terming the defenceless tribals as encroachers and empowering the forest bureaucracy to shoot them which is inhumane and in violation of the rights provided under the constitution.
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