New Delhi: The Centre’s sudden interest in changing the rules governing the forest sector has been criticized for its apparent attempt to favor corporate bodies and the potential to cause irreversible damage to the environment and deprive some of the most marginalized sections of their rights.
The Union Ministry of Environment, Forestry and Climate Change (MoEF&CC) has announced the establishment of a 19-member panel task force on March 31, which will review and analyze proposed amendments to the Forest (Conservation) Act (FCA), 1980, and the National Forest Policy (NFP), 1988, which have been in cold storage for more than four years.
A major objective of the working group, according to the memorandum issued by the ministry, will be to recommend measures “to develop synergies for the promotion of sustainable development and management of forests and trees outside forests”.
The fact that the working group was additionally mandated to examine the amendments to the NFP – criticized when it was published in March 2018 for their momentum on public-private partnership in the management of forest resources – has made it even clearer that the whole exercise is an attempt to help the corporate sector benefit to the detriment of tribal and other traditional communities that depend on natural resources for their livelihood.
“The latest memorandum released by the ministry also surprisingly mentions a National Forest Policy, 2021, which is not in the public domain. No public comment has ever been invited for a proposed policy document,” said Odisha-based independent researcher Tushar Dash. Newsclick.
Calling the task force’s proposed mandate to develop synergies in forest policies and regulatory regimes very “radical”, Dash said: “This raises serious concerns about the implication of this exercise on the forest rights of local communities secured by Scheduled Tribes and other traditional forests. Dwellers (Recognition of Forest Rights) Act, 2006, or PESA Provisions of the Panchayats (Extension to Scheduled Areas) Act, 1996”.
The provisions of the proposed NFP have also been denounced by the Union Tribal Affairs Department for their apparent thrust on increased privatization, industrialization and diversion of forest resources for commercial purposes. In a letter Sent to the Ministry of Environment, the Ministry of Tribal Affairs highlighted how public-private partnership models for afforestation and agroforestry would open up areas over which tribes and forest dwellers have legal rights.
The term “trees and forests outside forests” – on which the Union government has apparently sought to undertake sustainable development – generally refers to areas considered “famous forests” in various States.
Prior to December 1996, the provisions of the FCA applied only to forests notified under the Indian Forest Act of 1927 or other local law. Previously, the provisions of the Act, which focused primarily on the conservation and preservation of forest resources for the basic needs of local communities, also applied to forests under the management control of State and Territory Forest Departments. Union.
However, the applicability of the law has been extended to various other areas following a Ordered issued on December 12, 1996 by a Supreme Court Division Bench consisting of Justices Jagdish Sharan Verma and Bhupinder Nath Kirpal in the landmark case TN Godavarman Thirumulpad v Union of India and others.
Now, all areas registered as “forests” in any government register, regardless of ownership, recognition and classification, fall under the jurisdiction of the FCA. The ordinance also placed areas confirming the dictionary meaning of the term “forest” within the scope of the law. Areas identified as “forests” by the expert committee set up pursuant to the court order were also covered by the law. Importantly, the order had also been interpreted in the past to presume that the FCA also applies to plantations on non-forest land.
The enactment of the Forest Rights Act 2006 extended the rights of individuals and communities dependent on forest resources to areas also identified as forests following the court order. The prior consent of Gram Sabhas is required before diverting any forest area for industrial purposes.
The task force will also review proposed changes to the CFL that have been severely critical into the public domain during last year’s consultations. By Narendra Modi’s own government admission in Parliament the last week of March, more than 5,600 comments were received in response to the draft amendments.
Incidentally, a key provision of the package of amendments proposed by the FCA was to remove “ambiguity” over forest rights created over areas identified as “forests” based on the court order.
The consulting project paper on the amendments to the CAF made public last October – which will also be analyzed by the working group – including the famous declaration concerning the lands identified as forests under the order of the Court: “The identification of such lands is subjective and arbitrary to some extent. This leads to ambiguity and has resulted in much resentment and resistance, especially from individuals and organizations.
Civil society and conservationists argue that a separate policy is needed to keep commercial plantations out of FCA’s reach.
“The Union Government should develop a policy to proactively identify and notify vacant private land to be used for commercial plantations. This process should be transparent and should include high-resolution geotagged photographs and satellite images of these plots as well as ownership details,” said Debi Goenka of the Mumbai-based environmental organization Conservation Action Trust. Newsclick.
More than 25 years after the court order, there is neither uniformity among states in the identification of deemed forests nor transparency in its status. The urgency of updating land records to accurately record forest land as forest, including “deemed” forests identified by state governments, has been repeatedly pointed out by conservationists.
“Arbitrariness and subjectivity in identifying forest land can be reduced if the government defines the term ‘forest’. Why has this exercise been pending for so many years? asked Goenka.
The task force consists of only serving and retired bureaucrats, with the exception of a few independent members and a lawyer. Although the ministry granted the task force freedom to co-opt any member, no representatives from the two biodiversity hotspots of Western and North Eastern Ghats were included.