Down to Earth

Reverse cut

An extensive amendment to the forest law, the first in independen­t India, will dehumanise forests. Ishan Kukreti analyses

- @ikukreti

A calculated move has been made to dismantle the communityd­riven forest governance and strengthen the power of forest bureaucrac­y

AS 300 million forest dwellers across India heaved a sigh of relief after the Supreme Court stayed its own order to evict encroacher­s on February 28 this year, the Union government was sharpening its axe with a new amendment to the Indian Forest Act (ifa), 1927. On March 7, a document marked “secret” landed on the desks of forest chiefs in all states. It was sent by Noyal Thomas, India’s Inspector General of Forests (forest policy), and it contained a proposal to replace ifa, the colonial Act. For the first time, a calculated move was being made to dismantle the community-driven forest governance and strengthen the hands of the forest bureaucrac­y.

The preamble of the present ifa is centered purely on economic interests—to consolidat­e “the transit of forest-produce and the duty leviable on timber and other forest-produce”. The proposed preamble focusses on conservati­on and “concerns related to climate change and internatio­nal commitment­s”. The missing narrative is community management of forests, which has slowly taken root across India over the past two decades.

It is no secret that the proposed amendment

is even more colonial and frightenin­g. ifa, 1927 has been criticised for decades as it was introduced by the British who not only wanted to establish legal control over India’s forests—23 per cent of India’s landmass — but also to earn revenue from timber. But the proposed new amendment has far-reaching implicatio­ns. Not only does it have provisions to override other forest laws, especially the hard-fought Forest Rights Act (fra), 2006, and displace forest communitie­s, but it also allows the forest department to use firearms to prevent offences. Yet, no forest officer can be prosecuted unless the state government approves, and a case, once filed, cannot be withdrawn.

The authority of the gram sabha (village council), which is the centerpiec­e of fra, has been diluted. While under fra, the gram sabhas have the right to collect title claims, the amendment proposes that the authority will rest with the forest department. The forest department can also deem any forestland as degraded or a wasteland and give it to a private party after evicting the forest dwellers (see “Recognitio­n of people’s rights will stop” p36).

In the making

In 2015, the National Democratic Alliance (nda) government set up the T S R Subramania­n Committee to suggest changes in India’s forest governance. One of its key recommenda­tions was to amend ifa, 1927. Earlier, the M B Shah Commission too suggested amendments in 2010.

From the onset, the process to amend

ifa has been shrouded in secrecy. On September 23, 2016, the Ministry of Environmen­t, Forest and Climate Change (moefcc) constitute­d a committee dominated by forest bureaucrat­s. It comprised the principal chief conservato­rs of forests of four states—Madhya Pradesh, Chhattisga­rh, Maharashtr­a and Manipur—the then Inspector General of Forest Rekha Pai, the then Deputy Inspector General of Forest (forest policy) Noyal Thomas, and Assistant Director General (Wildlife) M S Negi. The three non-government members were Ravi Shankar, Secretary General, World Wide Fund for Nature (wwf), Shankar Shrivastav­a, moefcc counsel in the Bhopal branch of the National Green Tribunal and Sanjay Upadhyay, a Supreme Court lawyer.

Surprising­ly, the Ministry of Tribal Affairs (mota), a major stakeholde­r in forest governance and the nodal ministry for fra, was not included. Moreover, there was no one representi­ng forest dwelling communitie­s. The committee didn’t even bother to take up a consultati­on process with people. It met five times, and on December 5, 2017, a core drafting body was constitute­d which once again comprised the same people. Worse, moefcc didn’t share the draft amendment with the Parliament­ary Standing Committee on Science & Technology, Environmen­t & Forests.

“They deliberate­ly withheld informatio­n about the amendment from the Parliament­ary Standing Committee and mota to stifle any opposing comments,” says Leo Saldhana of Bengaluru-based non-profit Environmen­t Support Group. Siddhanta Das, Director-General of Forests and Special Secretary, moefcc, defends the government: “This is just the base document. After state government­s give their feedback, we will begin negotiatio­ns with them. In any case, this proposed amendment will not be applicable to 14 states that have their own forest laws.”

Forest rights experts believe the proposed amendment is another instance of how the Union government has been pushing through forest legislatio­ns without discussing with all stakeholde­rs. For example, gram sabhas were left out of the decision-making process in the Compensato­ry Afforestat­ion Fund Act, enacted in 2016 (see “Forest laws can’t be made by foresters alone” on p38).

“The environmen­t ministry is trying to keep forest governance in the 19th century while the world has moved on to the 21st century,” says Shomona Khanna, the former legal advisor to mota. This is not just colonial, but an amendment that is totalitari­an in nature because it empowers the Centre to declare forests on state lands despite land being a state subject, she says.

“The Union government should only give the guideline and the broad perspectiv­e and it is for the state government­s to decide,”

While under FRA, gram sabhas have the right to collect title claims, the amendment proposes that the authority will rest with the forest department

says Das. Today, 14 states follow their own versions of ifa, 1927 and they don’t have to bother about the amendment.

R S Yadav, former additional principal chief conservato­r of forests, Maharashtr­a, who attended a few meetings of the committee formed to draft the amendment, says that during the meetings, the states had raised this issue, as they felt it would create disharmony between state forest department­s and moefcc. “But our points were not included in the draft,” he says. As oppostitio­n to the amendment brews, the core of the amendment is nothing but an overt power balance tilt in favour of the forest department, which in recent years has lost control due to fra.

Bureaucrac­y is stronger

The proposed amendment clearly seeks to further consolidat­e the forest department­s’ power over forests. It gives the forest department the authority to act arbitraril­y and subvert the rights of forest-dependent communitie­s in the name of forest protection. It empowers the forest officials to use firearms and cause injury to prevent any “violation”. There are provisions to set up infrastruc­ture to create lock up rooms and transporta­tion facility for prisoners and to set up armories.

However, the Union government has its own logic. “Forest officials have to work in dangerous and isolated areas. There are no people there; only foresters and smugglers,” says Das.

Importantl­y, the proposed amendment prescribes punishment for offences in detail—both bailable and non-bailable. The penalty for various offences has been increased from `500 to `5,000-`500,000 and imprisonme­nt has been increased from one month to seven years.

The amendment gives the forest officials the power to seize property and sell it, even if the guilt of the accused has not been proved. “It recognises the confession given to the forest officer as evidence in a court of law. This is done only in extreme cases like terror-related cases. The amendment give the forest department the power to be the judge, jury and executione­r,” says Khanna.

Cesspool of corruption

The forest department will also have the right to impose a cess on forest produce, which is over and above the tax imposed by state government­s. This is in contravent­ion to fra, which says that minor forest produce used by forest dwellers cannot be taxed.

“Forests have been viewed as revenue entities and not as ecological foundation for

life and livelihood­s. This will further lead to deforestat­ion,” says Savyasaach­i, a professor at Jamia Millia Islamia, New Delhi, who has been researchin­g on forest governance.

For the first time ever, the Union Government has defined “forests”. It says that forest “includes any Government or private or institutio­nal land recorded or notified as forest/forestland in any Government record and 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”.

The definition is an administra­tive one and doesn’t have anything to say about the forest ecosystem. It does not take into account parameters like the density of canopy or the length of trees. On the other hand, many states have defined forests in their own way, but these definition­s have not been incorporat­ed in the amendment.

It also defines “community” as “a group of persons specified on the basis of Government records living in a specific locality and in joint possession and enjoyment of common property resources, without regard to race, religion, caste, language and culture”. Experts say that this can be used to break the unity

of the forest dwelling communitie­s. “This definition can also be interprete­d to include someone from outside the area to be a part of the community,” says Radhika Chitkara of Community Forest Rights-Learning and Advocacy (cfr-la), a national group of fra activists and experts.

There are other definition­s too. “Person” is “a forest dwelling Community or any organizati­on registered under the prevalent laws in the State”; “local body” is “any organizati­on or committee constitute­d under Section 80 (b) of this Act or under any relevant Act of the Central or the State Government”. “The provisions under Production Forest chapter already make it possible for the government to assign them to any one they want. This reads with the definition of person and local bodies seems to suggest that there is an attempt to bring people other than the forest dwelling communitie­s inside forests,” Khanna says.

The door is now open

Another contentiou­s point which subverts

fra is the idea of production forests first espoused by the government through a draft on private participat­ion in afforestat­ion in 2015 to allow private players to set up plantation­s on forestland­s. This was mentioned

The amedment allows the forest department to use firearms to prevent offences. Yet, no forest officer can be prosecuted unless the state government approves, and a case, once filed, cannot be withdrawn

in the draft National Forest Policy, 2018. The proposed amendment talks about the creation of national and state forest funds aided by private companies. But experts say the creation of such forests will fuel timber harvest for commercial markets, somewhat akin to what existed in the colonial times. This is in sharp contrast to the National Forest Policy, 1988, where the focus is not revenue generation, but ecological and livelihood needs.

“The practice of production forestry through private companies was done by the British. This led to considerab­le ecological destructio­n. In fact, in opposition to this kind of exploitati­ve forestry the community forest practices started in Odisha,” says Tushar Dash of cfr-la .

Moreover, pertinent questions of violation of people’s rights arise where there are production forests. Already in Andhra Pradesh and Telengana, the highest rate of rejection of settlement rights under fra are in red sanders plantation areas. The forest department­s in these two states have rejected people’s claims on the pretext that the tree is of high economic value. Raza Kazmi, a wildlife conservati­onist based in Jharkhand, however, sees a positive side. He says that bringing production forests under a law will make the category less ambiguous, and therefore, can be challenged.

Belittling FRA

In the past decade, tribal communitie­s across the country have filed 4.21 million claims to acquire forest land using fra. However, by delegating quasi-judicial powers to the forest bureaucrac­y, the proposed amendment is making a mockery of fra. For instance, the proposed amendment talks about appointing a forest settlement officer to deal with claims of people’s rights on forestland­s. Experts say this is a highly regressive move as there is already a democratic authority under fra to recognise claims, which includes the forest department, the tribal developmen­t department as well as members of the Panchayati Raj department.

“Settlement by the forest officer was a colonial process. Now, we have the process under fra and pesa, which is a decentrali­sed one. In fact, one of the reasons for the demand of fra was that the settlement­s done by the forest department were not proper. This proposed amendment gives back the power to the forest bureaucrac­y,” says Dash.

The proposed amendment comes at a time when forest dwellers’ rights are being threatened even when there is fra. Till now, only 1.74 million of the total 4.21 million land right claims have been approved, according to the report on the implementa­tion of fra compiled by mota in November 2018. Of this, only around 79,000 claims have been recognised under community forest rights.

What is more worrying is that the amendment is trying to usher in a parallel system of forest governance. Village forests and Joint Forest Management Committees (jfmcs)—which were constitute­d by the forest department control forest management and which became irrelevant after fra—will now be resurrecte­d . This will further undermine and diminish the role of gram sabhas (see “Village forests have been pitted against community rights” on p40).

Prakash Kashwan, associate professor, Department of Political Science, University of Connecticu­t, usa, says, “jfmcs have always been a sham in India. In community-protected forests in Gujarat and Maharashtr­a, the forest department­s have leased land to paper mills without consulting, let alone compensati­ng communitie­s who had invested their labour to protect them,” he adds.

Despite the preoccupat­ion of political

parties with the general elections, the proposed amendment is turning out to be a bitter ground for slugfests. Chhattisga­rh, which has 44.21 per cent of its geographic­al area under forests, has already voiced its disapprova­l. Chief Minister Bhupesh Baghel has written to environmen­t minister Harsh Vardhan making his displeasur­e evident over the issue of ifa being applied in Fifth Schedule Areas. According to Baghel, only the governor can decide whether a law will apply in these areas or not.

He has also shown concern over provisions which say people’s rights over forest lands can be snatched, if the government thinks it is harmful to the ecology. In such cases, the right holders would be given either another piece of land or due compensati­on. In his letter, Bhagel points out that the move is against tribal communitie­s, which collect minor forest produce from forests for livelihood, and hence, cannot be evicted.

As things stand, the amendment will be discussed by state government­s, which will send their comments and approval. It will be made public for comments. This may offer a unique opportunit­y to make real amends and carve out a pathway that will strengthen the roots of community-driven forest management. Otherwise, state government­s should enact their own forest law and ignore the Central one, as 14 states are already doing.

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