On November 15, 2019, Union Environment Minister Prakash Javadekar announced that the government has withdrawn the draft amendment of the Indian Forest Act, 1927, (IFA) in order to remove any doubts about taking away the rights of tribals and forest dwellers. In a press conference held in New Delhi, he said, “Our government in the last five years has always worked in the interest of tribals and forest dwellers. To do away with any misgivings, we have decided to withdraw the 'draft' prepared for amendments to the Indian Forest Act, 1927.”
The minister also added that the draft was originally circulated by Inspector General of Forests (Forest Policy) Noyal Thomas, who had sent the proposal to all states on March 7, 2019, with a letter seeking their comments on what it called “the first draft” of the comprehensive amendments to the IFA. Each state was asked to conduct consultations with all its stakeholders, such as non-profits and civil society organisations, and send the compiled feedback back to the Environment Ministry by June 7. He added that the government was withdrawing the draft circulated among stakeholders, since the amendments had drawn a lot of criticism from tribal organisations as it gave forest officers the power to shoot people and notify any area as ‘production forests’ among other issues.
Since the announcement was made two days ago tribal groups have welcomed the move, however, many are raising crucial questions over the timing of the announcement linking it with the upcoming polls in Jharkhand. The BJP is currently battling a coalition crisis in the state as the party has not been able to form an alliance with former partners the Lok Janshakti Party (LJP) and All Jharkhand Students Union (AJSU) with both deciding to go solo in the upcoming Jharkhand Assembly elections. The political scenario in the state is strictly unpredictable as the state has not had a Chief Minister who completed a full term barring the incumbent Raghubar Das of BJP. For this term, the BJP seems to be using a no-holds-barred approach to maintain control over the share of the tribal votes in the state.
Also read: Changes to Indian Forests Act: How Modi is Trying to Subvert FRA
Speaking to NewsClick, Madhu Sarin of MAKAAM, a tribal and women farmers’ rights organisation said, “While we welcome the move, it is important to remember the context of this announcement. Its happening at the backdrop of the Jharkhand polls where there is a sizeable tribal population. Earlier, ever since the proposed changes were declared there have been protests over the controversial suggestions.” She added, “This has primarily been a verbal announcement by the environmental minister without any concrete notification, we are now demanding a formal notification of the same.”
In the conference, Javadekar also added that there was confusion among people about what the draft was meant for. “Eleven states have created their own forest laws. A study was done to see if they can be improved. But people thought this study was the government’s draft to amend the Indian Forest Act. The government has no such intention,” he said.
Speaking to NewsClick, Nitin Sethi, formerly associated with the Business Standard said, “The environment minister qualified his statement saying the government is not pursuing it 'at this time'. We still don't know if the draft law had been buried for good or for the political expediency till Jharkhand elections are over. The government was worried about the country-wide protests by tribals and forest-dwellers. It should come clean and take administrative action against officials who, it claims, circulated the draft law without the political executive's knowledge. Or it shall only confirm what we know – this was the government's idea. It has just backed off now under people's pressure."
Despite the announcement, mass protests are being held across India against the BJP-led central government’s moves to attack the rights of tribals and forest dwellers. Tens of thousands of people are protesting in Madhya Pradesh, Chhattisgarh, Odisha, Nagar Haveli, Gujarat, Rajasthan, Tamil Nadu and Uttarakhand against the government’s steps, which include illegal acts by forest officials, including illegally diverting forest land and denying people’s rights. Even though the amendments proposed to allow forest officials to arrest, raid and search without warrant, confiscate property, extinguish people’s rights by just paying cash, and shoot and kill forest dwellers, the proposal continued to stand for six months.
According to activists working for tribal and forest-dwellers’ rights, the draft changes “essentially made the act more draconian, by vesting AFSPA (Armed Forces Special Powers Act) like powers to the forest officials”. Under the Indian Forests Act of 1927, forest officials held exceptional powers, as it was primarily oriented towards gaining control of the Indian resources and suppressing the tribal population.
The proposed draft changes not only retain the exceptional powers of forest officials to police and possess firearms, but also provide them a greater immunity from prosecution. A clause in the draft read, “Whoever attempts to contravene, or abets the contravention of, any of the provisions of this Act or of any rule of order made thereunder shall be deemed to have contravened that provision or rule or order, as the case may be. That any person, forest officer, any officer of the State Government cannot withdraw forest offence cases registered under the Principal Act.”
Also read: States Admit Due Process Not Followed While Investigating FRA Claims
The draft law had proposed to restore higher management powers and also to provide veto powers to the forest bureaucracy. 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. It is important to note, in February this year, the claims of nearly 11,27,446 tribal and other forest-dwelling households had been rejected on various grounds by the Supreme Court after the respective ministries failed to defend the Forest Rights Act and did not even turn up for the court hearings.
The proposed draft was also likely to reduce the accessibility of forest dwellers and involvement of the Gram Sabhas by giving forest officials the power of the last word. The analysis of the draft done by Sethi said, “In order to enhance its police powers and capacities over forestlands, the Union government has proposed that The “State Government / Union Territory Administration shall develop the infrastructure for standardised lock-up rooms for housing the accused, transportation of accused, provide necessary articles for restraining the accused(s), armouries, safe custody of arms, ammunitions, shields, batons, helmets, armours, wireless, etc. to the Forest-officers for implementing the provisions of this Act” in each forest division of the country within two years.”
Another majorly problematic clause of the draft gives forest officials the powers to seize the pastures of the dwellers. It reads, “Whenever fire is caused wilfully or by gross negligence in a reserved forest, or theft of forest produce or grazing by cattle occur…the State Government may…direct that in such forest or any portion thereof, the exercise of all rights of pasture or to forest-produce shall be suspended for such period as it may think fit.”
Also read: 10 Lakh Tribals Can Be Evicted Owing to Centre’s Apathy
Not just police officials, the government has also given itself supreme powers as the draft indicates that the Centre will be able to intervene in the states on the matter of management of forestlands, overruling the states on several counts when it deems fit. The purpose of the draft and the intention of the government become clear as it proposes to open any patch of forests it deems fit for commercial plantations through either the forest administration or through private agencies.