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More Colonial Than Colonisers: Activists Raise Alarm Over Modi Govt’s Proposed Amendments to Forest Act

Increased powers to forest officials “would provide immunity for increasing atrocities, human rights violation, sexual violence and false FIRs," said Radhika Chitkara.

Following the leaked draft of the amendments to the Indian Forest Act (IFA), 1927, proposed by the Narendra Modi led-Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) government, forest rights activists and academics have slammed the proposal that seeks to vest forest officials with draconian powers.

Clause 64 of the proposed amendment reportedly reads, “Any Forest-officer may, without orders from a Magistrate and without a warrant, arrest any person against whom a reasonable suspicion exists of his having been concerned in any forest punishable with imprisonment for one year or upwards.”

Worse, per the proposed section 66(2), Forest officials can use firearms for the most frivolous of reasons; and if their firing is “purported to prevent commission of any forest-offence”, they cannot be prosecutedthereby granting the bureaucracy Armed Forces (Special Powers) Act like powers, as Nitin Sethi and Kumar Sambhav Srivastava have succinctly pointed out in Business Standard.

Activists argue that the proposed amendments are not only draconian but also contradict the existing laws like the Forests Rights Act (FRA), 2006 and the Biodiversity Act, 2002. The new provisions also impinge upon the rights of forest dwellers and are likely to snatch their livelihoods, resulting in forced displacements and pushing them to starvation, they argue.

NewsCentral24x7 spoke to prominent activists about the proposal that threatens the lives and livelihoods of millions of forest dwellers and tribals.

Outrageous, Unconstitutional

Leo Saldanha of the Environment Support Group (ESG) told NewsCentral24x7 that the executive is guilty of overriding powers over the Parliament.

Saldanha pointed out that the “Status of Forest in India” report by the Department-Related Parliamentary Standing Committee on Science& Technology, Environment & Forests, which was tabled in Parliament in February 2019, stated that “The Committee was informed that during the formulation stage of DNFP (Draft National Forest Policy 2018), the Ministry of Tribal Affairs wasn’t consulted. It was also informed that many provisions of the FRA, 2006 and PESA, 1996 have been diluted or disregarded. Therefore, the Committee recommends that Ministry of Tribal Affairs must be taken on board for wider consultation alongwith State Governments/ Local Bodies/ NGOs/ Civil society members before finalizing the Draft Forest Policy and notifying it. Further, adequate safeguards must be taken for the protection of vulnerable forest communities such as tribals and other communities who are dependent on the forest for their sustenance and survival.” (Emphasis in original)

Stating the Ministry of Environment and Forests (MoEF) did not reveal the draft of the proposed amendments to IFA to the Parliament, Saldanha said, “the proposals are outrageous, unconstitutional and demonstrate the deepest disrespect for the privilege of the Parliament, given that Ministry did not reveal these plans to the august body.” He emphatically pointed out that the MoEF must not develop any policy or amend any law relating to forests, forest rights or biodiversity unless it is done in coordination with Ministry of Tribal Affairs, as per the Allocation of Business Rules.

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Saldanha added that the proposed amendments are in contravention with the Fundamental Rights. “The Indian Environment Ministry’s effort amounts also to the Executive playing havoc with Fundamental Rights and amounts to subterfuge the Constitution. This is the most shocking development in the history of MoEF (and) must not go unpunished,” he said.

Saldanha stressed that the Parliament when it reconstitutes after elections, “must order an investigation into who was involved in this subterfuge and initiate criminal action against them – be they officers of the government, consultants or even elected representatives.” Saldanha maintains that “it is essential that this nation must know which powerful forces were involved in this effort that clearly is intended at recolonising India’s forests by Indian and Foreign Private Corporations for profit.”

Commenting on the government’s keen interest in commercialising forest lands in India, he also said that the Modi administration appears to be following in the footsteps of Brazilian President Bolsonaro, who has decided to attack special rights of indigenous peoples and open up the Amazon for logging, farming, industrialisation and urbanisation.

Indian forest act
(Photo: Facebook)

Rights of forest-dwelling communities

The proposed amendments also impinge upon rights of forest-dwelling communities, even those that were recognised under the FRA which came into existence in 2006 to protect the right to life and livelihood of these communities.

Environmental and tribal rights activist Viren Lobo told NewsCentral24x7 that the injunction of the FRA in the Indian legal system was to correct historical wrongs committed against the forest dwellers in the past. “Keeping in mind the historical injustice of patriarchy as well, this injustice predates the British. So recognition of rights does not merely relate to what the British recognised and or extinguished. The recognition of rights recognises their dependence and relationship to the forest as well,” he said.

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It is important to understand, Lobo emphasised, that we still have not recognised the purpose, role and essence of the FRA in its implementation. “This (FRA) is primarily related to community outlook on forests free from the commodity lens imposed on them over the years. The relevance of renewables for sustainable decentralised governance has to be brought centre stage. This is as opposed to using of renewables by Corporates for development as usual,” he told NewsCentral24x7. Describing the objectives of rights-activists in the near future, Lobo said, “In the meantime, the effort will be to stop forced displacement.

“Voluntary displacement will continue till such time as sustainable viable options do not exist on the ground.”

For checking on excesses commuted by the forest officers, even the state government would not have the right to grant sanction for prosecution without the executive magistrate first conducting an enquiry in the matter. This proposed provision has come in response to the steps of many state governments withdrawing cases lodged against rights-holders for petty ‘crimes.’ In the draft, the Modi government has said that this “has to be curbed with a heavy hand, because the results are disastrous. Porosity is the root cause of the destruction of prime forest areas.”

Environment rights activist, Professor Savyasaachi at the Department of Sociology in Jamia Milia Islamia University, in his conversation with the NewsCentral24x7 maintained that instead of diluting the IFA and bringing it in consonance with other legislations, the government is further enhancing the powers of the bureaucracy. “The IFA needs to be amended in the light of provisions laid down in the Wildlife (Protection) Act, Biodiversity Act and the FRA. The forest officers under IFA should not be allowed to do anything that violates these acts in letter and spirit. The powers of the forest officials must be restricted and curtailed accordingly,” he said.

Compounding the tragedy and in contravention of the rights granted under the FRA, the draft law also proposes to empower the forest bureaucracy to have the last say and not the gram sabhas. Besides, they would also have the right to constrain tribals and forest dwellers’ access to forest produce, which the communities recognised under the FRA own. These propositions explicitly override the Forest Rights Act (FRA), 2006 as the forest officials are granted exceptional powers.

Disempowers gram sabhas, paves way for human rights abuses

Radhika Chitkara, a lawyer with Community Forest Rights Learning and Advocacy Process, castigated the Modi government for its continued attempts to dilute the Forest Rights Act and disempower the gram sabhas. She said that these amendments go against the letter and spirit of the Forests Rights Act, 2006, which was instrumental in a transfer of authority from the Forest department to the gram sabhas to enable democratic forest governance, and is a potent tool to meet their livelihood needs and conservation.

“This follows the trend of previous laws and policies introduced by the present government, with a strong impulse towards commercial forestry, privatisation of forest resources and strengthening of the powers of forest officials and JFM against the authority of the Gram Sabha. These include CAF Act, Draft National Forest Policy, Guidelines on Critical Wildlife Habitat, illegal evictions of forest-dwelling communities from Protected Areas and failure on the part of the government to defend the FRA before the Supreme Court,” Chitkara said, adding that the present draft presents a structure that is “far more draconian than what was imagined even by the colonial rulers.”

Chitkara also criticised the central government for entirely excluding the participation of the Ministry of Tribal Affairs (the nodal ministry under FRA) and rights-holders across the country. She further added that increased power in the hands of forest officials “would provide immunity for increasing atrocities, human rights violation, sexual violence and false FIRs filed against rights-holders who are exercising their forest rights.” Noting that many state governments have withdrawn cases registered under the Indian Forest Act, 1927 to draw political mileage, the draft also pointed at new provisions where “any person, forest officer, any officer of the state government cannot withdraw forest offence cases registered under the Principal Act.”

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Shankar Gopalakrishnan of the Campaign for Survival and Dignity, a national platform of tribals and forest dwellers’ groups, shared their press statement with NewsCentral24x7. “The clear goal of these amendments is to turn India’s forests – almost a quarter of the country’s land area — into a police state where the interests of forest bureaucrats and private companies will reign supreme,” the statement reads.

Calling it a siege on the rights of forest communities, it adds, “This is nothing short of a declaration of war in forest areas. Who then is the enemy? Is it the country’s tribals and forest dwellers? Pointing to the recent judgment on the FRA, which has been stayed, the statement added, “Just as the backdoor attempt to get Forest Rights Act weakened in the court failed, this attempt too will fail. Protests are continuing and will intensify. The struggle goes on.”

Inspector General of Forests (Forest Policy) Noyal Thomas had reportedly sent a letter to state governments seeking their comments on the draft on earlier this month. Each recipient state, per the letter, has to organise consultation meetings with all stakeholders, including civil society organisations and get back to the Ministry with comments by June 7 this year. While media reports are based on the “leaked” draft and letter first shared by journalist Nitin Sethi on Twitter, the central government so far has not issued a confirmation or a denial.

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