On December 27, Parliament passed an amendment to the Indian Forest Act, 1927 removing ‘bamboo’ plant growing on non-forest lands from the definition of ‘tree’. The government claimed this would benefit tribals and other dwellers living around forests. The amendment converted into law what had been passed as an ordinance on 23 November.
According to the changed law, felling and transfer of bamboo grown on non-forest lands is legally permitted. However, the plant which is botanically defined in the ‘grass’ family, continues to be classified as ‘tree’ if growing on forest lands. This means that existing heavy restrictions on its felling and use will continue as before.
According to a 2011 inventory of India’s bamboo resources done by the Forest Survey of India, only about 10.2 million tonnes or 6% of India’s bamboo stock is growing outside forest lands (TOF – Trees outside Forest) while nearly 170 million tonnes (94%) grows in recorded forest areas. Clearly, the bulk of bamboo continues to be classified as ‘tree’.
Another issue raised by tribal groups is that the Forest Rights Act 2006 had given tribals and forest dwellers complete rights over minor forest produce, including bamboo. Yet the Forest Act continues to categorise forest growing bamboos as ‘trees’ and ensures control by forest departments, who are known to favour big contractors while coming down harshly on tribals.
Members of the opposition parties- the Congress, Biju Janata Dal and the Samajwadi Party, staged a walk-out while the bill was being put to vote in the Rajya Sabha. They opposed the “ordinance” route taken by the ruling party and claimed that the changed law would benefit the private players against the interests of tribals in the long run.
Congress MP and former Union Environment Minister Jairam Ramesh alleged that the amendment was “trampling upon the rights of the Gram Sabha, which are enshrined in the Indian Forest Act” and staged a walk-out who was followed by other members.
Commentators have argued that the “hurry” in which the bill has been passed is perhaps the BJP strategy to garner the support of landlords in the Northeastern states as the state assembly elections in Meghalaya, Tripura and Nagaland are coming up in early 2018. About 28% of India’s bamboo grows in Northeastern states.
CPI(M) Rajya Sabha MP from Tripura, Jharna Das Baidya opposed the Amendment Bill, alleging that the it provides scope for misuse by private parties. She requested the central government to establish a pulp and paper mill in the state. She said “the state will get industrialized because a large number of ancillary industries will be started” which will help in creating employment within Tripura and neighboring states.
What are the implications of this bill on the rights of the Gram Sabhas and bamboo cultivation?
The All India Agricultural Workers Union (AIAWU) in a statement said that the Union is deeply disturbed by the way the amendment bill has been presented and passed. Suneet Chopra, Member of AIAWU said that the bill would largely serve corporate interests in paper industry rather than the interests of the peasantry, forest dwellers and tribal people.
Chopra said that the NDA government’s policy to hand over large areas of waste land to corporates rather than distribute it to the landless people reflects in the anti-peasant character of this particular act.
“We see this as yet another measure to take over the farming and culling of bamboo from the hands of the people, the local bodies and state governments and reduce it to yet another monopoly of the centre to hand over to the corporates who are already looting the banks”, he added.
Comparing this act with the recently launched crop insurance scheme, he said that the scheme “also has helped the corporates rather than the farmers as is obvious from the figures we have of how they have gained 94% of the money put into it by the government while the farmers got barely 6%.”