After having failed to defend the Forest Rights Act (FRA) in the Supreme Court, the Ministry of Forests, Environment and Climate Change (MoEFC) under the Narendra Modi government has now introduced a draconian draft amendment to the colonial era, Indian Forests Act. Documents accessed by NewsClick showed that a letter to the states to give suggestions was sent out by the respective ministries on March 7, 2019. However, the proposed changes have not been put forth in the public domain. The consultations by the states are slated to be completed by June 7.
Changes to the Act
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. Speaking to NewsClick, Nitin Sethi of the Business Standard which has exhaustively covered the draft changes said, “The proposed changes essentially mean that the forest officials will now have AFSPA like powers and more importantly, more immunity from prosecution.” A clause in the draft reads, “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.”
The draft law has 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 have 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.
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Questioning the timing of the draft and commenting on the pattern of the efforts made by the government to trample tribal rights, Archana Prasad, Professor in the Centre for Informal Sector and Labour Studies in Jawaharlal Nehru University, said, “The timing of the move is extremely questionable, as it comes right before the elections, barely a few weeks after the Supreme Court judgement. It is clear from this pattern that the Modi government wants to finish tribal rights and it wants to increase the reach of the draconian law to even include the non forested areas and to bypass the Gram Sabhas.”
The proposed draft is 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 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 standardized 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 a period as it may think fit.”
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Through these clauses the Modi government has made it evident that it is trying all it can to repress the already vulnerable tribal communities by enforcing punishments such as the seizure of pastures directly aimed at cutting them off from their livelihoods.
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.
Nitin Sethi added, “The basic human rights of all of India’s tribal, forest dwelling and forest dependent citizens are suspended in perpetuity, while the government is motivated to legalise its desires to open forest lands by overriding the FRA.” Speaking to NewsClick, Kanchi Kohli from the Center of Policy Research said, “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. Opening these areas for commercial exploitation, runs the risk of monetising large tracts of forest land at the cost of other values. This also needs to be read in relation with the draft forest policy released last year where privatisation of forests was an important focus. 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.”
Activists on the ground believe that the move has come at a crucial time as a backdoor policy to override the ordinance which was brought in as a stay on the eviction of tribals, by instructing the states to follow suit and arming forest officials with exceptional powers to benefit corporate interests.
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