ISSN (Print) - 0012-9976 | ISSN (Online) - 2349-8846
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Insidious Infringement of Forest Rights

The draft Indian Forest Act, 2019 is a travesty of basic constitutional rights and principles.

The draft Indian Forest Act(IFA), 2019, proposes the introduction of a repressive policing regime by bestowing more powers on the forest bureaucracy for the governance of about 7,08,273 square kilometres of India’s forests, while also incorporating provisions for commercialising forestry in accordance with the tenets of neo-liberal policy.

It introduces coercive measures that would undermine some of the provisions in the Forest Rights Act (FRA), 2006, and proposes amendments that override the legislative and executive powers of the state governments. The 2019 draft has now been circulated to the states for their feedback and comments. It is noteworthy that this draft law has come in the aftermath of the Supreme Court’s controversial order of 13 February after the central government failed to defend theFRA. It is also ironic that the National Democratic Alliance government, in the run-up to the general elections, has the impudence to circulate a proposed law that would completely deny and severely curtail the rights of socially marginalised groups.

The regressive and contentious draft law has made major amendments to theIFA, 1927 by conceding a certain amount of veto power to forest officials, overriding the provisions in theFRA. The most controversial provisions in the draft law relate not only to the granting of quasi-judicial powers to the forest bureaucracy, but also to the indemnity provided to forest officials for using firearms in order to prevent forest-related violations. On a suspicion of committing a forest-related crime, as defined by the proposed act, the amendments empower forest officials to shoot, search, seize property, and arrest citizens, while the burden of proving innocence would lie solely on the accused. On the other hand, forest officials would be accorded legal protection akin to what is provided to soldiers stationed in conflict zones under the Armed Forces (Special Powers) Act, 1958.

Another politically subversive measure which would undermine theFRA is that, in consultation with the central government, the state governments are conferred the powers to commute rights provided under it, if such rights would hamper conservation. This would be done by paying money or granting land instead to forest dwellers. This would eventually lead to their eviction from forests, blatantly violating the rights of forest-dependent communities who have been subjected to various forms of historical injustices by colonial as well as successive elected governments.

The draft law further proposes that if the rules framed by the centre come into conflict with those of the states, then the former would prevail over the latter. These go against the principles on which the federal relations between the centre and the states are framed in the Constitution. In addition, by proposing a system of “village forests” that bypasses the role of gram sabhas, these violate the principles of decentralised governance. Therefore, these amendments, if implemented, would undermine the basic rights and principles accorded by the Constitution to the states and its citizens.

With regard to commercialisation of forestry, the provisions include measures to privatise forests as well as to introduce “production forests.” These would further infringe upon theFRA and undermine the democratic governance of forests by drastically altering the stakes of the actors, unsettle existing cooperative or joint arrangements for the use of forestlands and common property resources, and offer opportunities for private accumulation at the cost of impoverished and marginalised groups.

Why would the government at the centre push for an authoritarian forest regime that would effectively endanger and curtail the civil liberties of the forest dwellers—who are among the most socially and economically marginalised groups, especially indigenous communities/Adivasis dependent on forest produce for livelihood—and transform India’s forests into an arena for conflict? Why is the government amending laws against the interests of traditional forest dwellers disregarding theFRA, while also being indifferent to or failing to protect their rights? Moreover, an attempt at amending laws without initiating a rigorous political or public discussion is appalling.

It is unfortunate that in a country where poverty is concentrated in Adivasi pockets in lagging regions and where inequality has been exacerbating over time, matters regarding forest governance and forest rights are perceived as non-issues, with the major political parties disregarding pivotal issues concerning forest-dependent populations. While the Congress party has proposed a comprehensive framework for the involvement of local communities in the management of forests, the manifesto of the Bharatiya Janata Party does not discuss issues regarding the implementation of theFRA at all.

However, in the interest of forest-dependent communities, it is crucial that the oppressive and unfair amendments to the forest laws are repealed, and a pro-poor and democratic approach to forest governance is adopted; for, if implemented, these amendments would engender new forms of inequality and disenfranchisement in the event of a state-led deterritorialisation of the forestlands.

Updated On : 16th Apr, 2019

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