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New Forest Conservation Bill to Enable Corporate Take Over of Tribal Land, say Activists

BAA Demands Bill be immediately withdrawn or revisited and Act be made compliant with provisions of FRA
Kerala: LDF Accuse Protesting UDF of Double Standards on Buffer Zone Issue, Claims Reducing Zone Limit

Representational Image. Image Courtesy: PTI

New Delhi: Forest rights activists have come out with scathing criticism of Forest Conservation (Amendment) Bill 2023 and emphasised that it disempowers the tribal people by allowing land transfer to the government and private sector. The union government on March 27 introduced the bill in the Lok Sabha to seek its assent on amendments. The statement and objects of the bill argue that the horizons of the act need to be broadened to accommodate the changing environmental, social and ecological needs, particularly national targets of net zero emissions by 2070, land for security purposes to combat terrorism and other non-forestry purposes. 

Addressing a press conference in the national capital on Tuesday, the constituent organisations of Bhoomi Adhikar Andolan (BAA) said that the definitions and scope of the existing act had been changed to suit the interests of the corporate sector. BAA is an umbrella organisation of individuals, groups and unions working on the question of land rights, which came into existence after the struggle on the Land Acquisition Act. 

BAA demands that the proposed Forest (Conservation) Amendment Bill, 2023, be immediately withdrawn or revisited. The Act be made compliant with the provisions of the Forest Rights Act (FRA) to ensure a more robust legal mechanism conceding the primary authority of Gram Sabha to conserve, protect and comply with the fulfilment of the legal mandate of ensuring forest rights vested on the decision making of Gram Sabhas before any diversion of forest land. They have also called for “Black Day” on 30 June 2023 with a Nation-Wide Demonstration at the block and district level to strengthen demands for Land Rights.

Hannan Mollah, Vice President of All India Kisan Sabha (AIKS), said there had been consistent attacks in the last nine years of the National Democratic Alliance (NDA) government, whether farm laws or other legal changes. The proposed changes are against the spirit of the FRA, which reversed the historical wrongs on Tribal people by colonial and post independent governments. He said that the proposed amendments snatch away the rights of gram sabhas under Panchayat (Extension to Scheduled Areas) Act (PESA) 1996,  National Forest Policy 1988 and FRA 2006.

Pointing to Section 1A (2) of the bill, he said that exemptions in the bill violate FRA nullifying the power of Gram Sabha that governs over all forest land and requires the consent of Gram Sabha before diverting forest land. “The present Union Government eases the diversions of forest and forest land to private agencies for linear projects, mineral prospecting, grant of mining leases, creation of land banks, and granting "in principle" Stage I clearance disregarding FRA in its totality,” he said. 

Section 1 A (2) read, “a) such forest land situated alongside a rail line or a public road maintained by the Government, which provides access to a habitation, or to a rail, and roadside amenity up to a maximum size of 0.10 hectare in each case; (b) such tree, tree plantation or reafforestation raised on lands that are not specified in clause (a) or clause (b) of sub-section (1); and (c) such forest land,—(i) as is situated within a distance of one hundred kilometres along international borders or Line of Control or Line of Actual Control, as the case may be, proposed to be used for construction of strategic linear project of national importance and concerning national security; or (ii) up to ten hectares, proposed to be used for construction of security related infrastructure; or (iii) as is proposed to be used for construction of defence related project or a camp for paramilitary forces or public utility projects, as may be specified by the Central Government, the extent of which does not exceed five hectares in a Left Wing Extremism affected area as may be notified by the Central Government.” 

Further, the amendment of Section 2 inserts a new sub-section 2, which exempts from FCA any survey, such as reconnaissance, prospecting, investigation, or exploration, including seismic survey, by saying that such survey shall not be treated as non-forest purpose.

He added that 90,000 hectares of land had been transferred to the corporate sector for non-forestry purposes. 

Roma Malik from All India Union for Forest Working People said that the bill, introduced as a general act, violates the Forest Rights Act, a Special Act. She said, “The Forest Rights Act reverses the injustices to tribal population done through previous acts in the colonial era. However, the forest department remains the largest owner of the land and disempowering millions of tribal families.” She added that the amendments would cause massive deforestation and degradation of the environment, disturbance in biodiversity and livelihood of forest-dependent communities. The proposed amendments are pro-corporate, pro-industrialist, pro-privatisation and pro-bureaucratic control, clearly shifting the democratic governance of forests from Gram Sabhas.

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