New Forest Conservation Rules: Correcting injustices or paving the way for more?

The new ‘Conservation Rules’ have re-ignited fear that forest dwellers will be made to give up their rights and land for industry. Already, over a million poor peasants are declared illegal occupants

In most cases, forest dwellers and tribals have been cultivating the land for several generations
In most cases, forest dwellers and tribals have been cultivating the land for several generations

Bharat Dogra

While time will tell if the newly notified Forest (Conservation) Rules will protect ‘Forest Rights’ and interests of forest dwellers, a 2019 analysis had shown that the Forest Advisory Committee approved 193 of the 240 proposals for diversion of forest land without dwelling too long on ‘consent’.

The new rules notified on June 29, the government has explained, is consolidation of various orders issued by the Ministry of Environment to facilitate administration. Significantly, most of these orders were objected to by the Ministry of Tribal Affairs but the objections were overruled.

There is, therefore, justified apprehension that the new codified rules will make it easier to divert forests for commercial exploitation without the mandatory consent of the ‘Gram Sabha’ and forest dwellers as required under the Forest Rights Act.

The Union Government has defended its action by claiming that the ‘consent’ part would continue to be dealt with by the states but after the Centre has already cleared the proposals.

There have always been two main concerns regarding forest policy. First, the remaining natural forests should be well protected and degraded ones should have a chance of renewal and regeneration.

Secondly, forest rights of tribal communities and those living in and close to forests should be protected so that they are not pushed towards poverty and hunger. Their rights over minor forest produce and to cultivate small plots within the forests be honoured.

New Forest Conservation Rules: Correcting injustices or paving the way for more?

Another concern is that while rights of Scheduled Tribes are better recognised by the law and the Constitution, rights of others living in or close to forests remain to be recognized. For example, only a very small part of Western Himalayan villagers have such recognition and yet the importance of forests for their livelihood and sustenance cannot be denied.

The new rules seemingly make it easier to divert forest land for industrial use while diluting the rights of tribal and forest communities, including those derived under the Forest Rights Act. This is not overtly stated in the Rules but this is the likely effect, experts apprehend.

This is in keeping with the pro-business orientation of the government in general and the environment ministry in particular. The environment ministry has been accused of behaving unlike a ministry set up to protect the environment but rather as a ministry to protect big business interests from existing environment regulations.

There is also growing concern that a decade and a half after the Forest Rights Act came into force, neither the objective of protecting natural forests is being achieved, nor the objective of protecting the rights of tribal and forest communities.

There are conflicting claims though, with the government claiming that area under forests is actually increasing. However, this is a highly dubious claim because it is based on counting even monoculture industrial plantations as forests. As for claims relating to protecting rights of tribal and forest dwellers, there is ample evidence on the ground that their existence has become more precarious.

When the Forest Rights Act was enacted in 2006, there were promises made of correcting the historical injustice inflicted on tribal and forest communities. In the course of actual implementation, however, a very high number of claims of forest communities were rejected on various technical grounds and their inability to pursue claims backed by suitable documents.

The authorities on the whole were also unsympathetic and far more eager to do the bidding of corporate interests and the government.

In many areas as a result, there has been significant reduction in the land that was being cultivated by them. Those whose claims were accepted did become more secure in their land rights. But those whose claims were rejected and who were already on the margins of society lost their land rights and were left in the lurch.

In most cases they were cultivating the forest land for several generations. Now that following the so-called ‘due process of law’, over a million poor peasants have been declared to be illegal occupants of land. The efforts which started off to correct injustice has taken a new direction.

(The writer is honorary convener, Campaign to Save Earth Now. His recent book is ‘A Day in 2071’)

(This article was first published in National Herald on Sunday.)

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Published: 24 Jul 2022, 9:34 PM