Prakash Javadekar misleads Lok Sabha now on amendments to Forest Act

Environment minister Prakash Javadekar said in Parliament that the amendments to the Forest Act will recognise rights and role of villagers. Forest rights activists say Modi govt is being dishonest

Prakash Javadekar misleads Lok Sabha now on amendments to Forest Act

Ashlin Mathew

After lying in Parliament about ‘One Rank, One Pension’, the Modi government has now lied about the amendments to Forest Act 1927 on Friday, June 28.

Aurangabad MP Sushil Kumar Singh had asked the Minister of Environment, Forests and Climate Change, Prakash Javadekar, to give details of the proposed amendments to Indian Forest Act (IFA), 1927, and the ways in which the changes would affect the lives of forest dwellers who depend on these forests for their livelihood. He also wanted to know if amendment proposed a collective punishment against entire village for any violation and he wanted details of what the punishment would entail.

The response from Javadekar stated that proposal is to recognise the rights and role of villagers in managing village-forest through Joint Forest Management Committees (JFMCs). These benefits to villagers and rural communities are not in derogation but in addition to the forest rights and occupation in forest land which are recognised and vested in forest dwelling Scheduled Tribes and other traditional forest dwellers as per the provisions of the Scheduled Tribes and Other Traditional Forest Dwellers (Recognition of Forest Rights) Act, 2006.

“The proposed amendment in Indian Forest Act, 1927, also envisages to assign the village community the responsibility of conservation and development of village forest constituted out of any forest or land for the socio-economic benefit of community,” states Javadekar in his response.

Forest rights activist Shankar Gopalkrishnan completely disagrees. He says minister's reply is misleading, full of inaccuracies and contrary to law, if not outright dishonest.

Explaining, Gopalakrishnan states, “The statement that the IFA Amendment is intended to strengthen the Joint Forest Management committees both does not match with what the proposed amendment says and is also in direct violation of the Forest Rights Act. Under the Forest Rights Act and Rules, every village with forest dwellers should have rights recognised over a community forest resource which the village itself (through its gram sabha) will protect and manage. This is a democratic system with a basis in law. JFM Committees are Forest Department created bodies with forest guards as their secretaries. Empowering it is a way of disempowering actual forest dwellers.”

The minister states that in the proposed amendments, there is no provision regarding collective punishment against entire village for any violation. However, this is deceptive. “The proposed amendment does provide for collective punishment in the form of withdrawal of rights in case of "fires being set wilfully" (see proposed section 26(3)),” highlights Gopalakrishnan, who is affiliated with the Campaign for Survival and Dignity, a platform of Indigenous peoples' and forest dwellers’ organisations from eleven States working on issues of rights over natural resources.

Section 26(3) gives the DFO or a ranger, or sub-inspector or a tehsildar, the power to suspend rights to pasture and Section 26(4) to evict anyone who has been responsible for the same.

The proposed amendment says firearms can be used for as frivolous a purpose as "securing forest produce", and further provides that forest officials cannot be prosecuted except after an internal inquiry if they "purport" that they used firearms under the proposed section 66(2). Section 66 allows the forest, police or revenue officer the right to bear arms and injure a person whom they charge with forest offences.

One look at Section 22A(2) of the Forest Rights Amendments Act tells us that the proposed amendment provides for forest officials to extinguish forest rights by merely providing cash compensation. The section states that the government can acquire any right of a person which is “inconsistent with the conservation of the proposed reserved forest”. But, they haven’t mentioned what would be ‘inconsistent’.

Proposed Amendments

The Union government had proposed to overhaul the IFA in March 2019. It was proposed that forest officials would be able to deny or extinguish rights over traditional forests of tribals, even those already recognised under the FRA. It wanted to restrict forest dwellers access to forest produce, which they own under the Forest Rights Act, 2006, and it would reduce the role of gram sabhas.

In the amendments, the government had proposed to not only retain but increase policing and quasi-judicial powers enjoyed by forest officials. Forest officials, under the draft law, can simply deny all rights – if they feel enough forest is “left over” – by declaring any area is a “conservation reserve”.

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Published: 28 Jun 2019, 5:52 PM