Humanise the law: draft Indian Forest Act
The draft Indian Forest Act must be redrawn to rid it of bureaucratic overreach
What is the issue?
• After having failed to defend the Forest Rights Act (FRA) in the Supreme Court, the Ministry of Forests, Environment and Climate Change (MoEFC) has now introduced a draconian draft amendment to the colonial era, Indian Forests Act.
Changes to the Act
• The original law, the Indian Forest Act, 1927, is an incongruous relic, its provisions having been drafted to suit the objectives of a colonial power that had extractive uses for forests in mind.
o Modernising colonial era laws is a long-delayed project, but the draft Indian Forest Act, 2019 is woefully short of being a transformative piece of legislation.
• The draft Bill reinforces the idea of bureaucratic control of forests, providing immunity for actions such as use of firearms by personnel to prevent an offence.
o The amendments proposed in the colonial-era Indian Forest Act, 1927 reflect the Centre’s attempt to grab natural resources owned by tribals for generations.
• The hardline policing approach is reflected in the emphasis on creating infrastructure to detain and transport the accused, and to penalise entire communities through denial of access to forests for offences by individuals.
• As per the new draft, forest officials have been given the absolute authority to shoot tribals for “violation of laws”.
o If a forest guard kills an “offender”, the move will invite no prosecution by the state governments without first initiating an inquiry into the matter under an executive magistrate.
o Under the new amendment, forest departments can also declare any forest as reserved and alienate the forest-dwelling communities from their ancestral lands.
o Such provisions invariably affect poor inhabitants, and run counter to the empowering and egalitarian goals that produced the Forest Rights Act. This will have a terrible effect on the tribal population, who are struggling to make both ends meet.
• The IFA had historically always focused on forest productivity, however the proposed amendments add specific category of production forests which can be located within reserved, unclassed or protected forests which have a diversity of uses and governance structures.
o Opening these areas for commercial exploitation, runs the risk of monetising large tracts of forest land at the cost of other values.
o This also needs to be read in relation with the draft forest policy released last year where privatisation of forests was an important focus.
o What complicates this further is that the section on production forests has no reference to the 2006 Forest Rights Act, bringing it in direct conflict with rights conferred thereunder.
• The draft law has proposed to restore higher management powers and also to provide veto powers to the forest bureaucracy.
o This essentially makes the denial of rights to tribals and traditional forest dwellers convenient for forest officials, even if they are recognised under the Forest Rights Act.
• Through the National Forest Policy of 1988, the Centre recognised the symbiotic relationship between tribals and forests for the first time.
o This was then consolidated with the passage of the Forest Rights Act (FRA), 2006, when the Centre agreed that historical injustice had been committed and tried to undo the wrong.
• During the 1980s and 1990s, at least the Centre showed some kind of sympathy for the tribals, as a result of which important legislations like FRA and the Panchayat (Extension to Scheduled Areas) Act, 1996, or PESA, were enacted.
• But with the proposed amendment, the injustice will be deeper. If the proposed amendment comes into force, tribals will be defenceless while the forest department will be powerful.
• A new law enacted should make a departure and be aimed to expand India’s forests, and ensure the well-being of traditional forest-dwellers and biodiversity in these landscapes.
o The need is for a paradigm that encourages community-led, scientifically validated conservation.
o This is critical, for only 2.99% of India’s geographic area is classified as very dense forest;
the rest of the green cover of a total of 21.54% is nearly equally divided into open and moderately dense forest, according to the State of Forest Report 2017.
• India’s forests play a key role in moderating the lives of not just the adivasis and other traditional dwellers, but everyone in the subcontinent, through their impact on the climate and monsoons. Their health can be improved only through collaboration.
• Any new forest law must, therefore, aim to reduce conflicts, incentivise tribals and stop diversion for non-forest uses. This can be achieved by recognising all suitable landscapes as forests and insulating them from commercial exploitation. Such an approach requires a partnership with communities on the one hand, and scientists on the other.
• For decades now, the Forest Department has resisted independent scientific evaluation of forest health and biodiversity conservation outcomes.
• In parallel, environmental policy has weakened public scrutiny of decisions on diversion of forests for destructive activities such as mining and large dam construction.
• Impact assessment reports have mostly been reduced to a farce, and the public hearings process has been diluted.
• When a new government takes over, the entire issue should go back to the drawing board.
o The government needs to launch a process of consultation, beginning with the State governments to ensure that a progressive law is adopted by all States, including those that have their own versions of the existing Act.
o The Centre must hear the voice of all stakeholders and communities, including independent scientific experts.
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