Topic : Humanise the law: draft Indian Forest Act
Topic in Syllabus: General Studies Paper 3: Ecology & Environment
The Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change (MoEF&CC) has finalized the first draft of the comprehensive amendments to the Indian Forest Act, 1927 (IFA).
More about on news:
- The draft has been prepared based on the inputs of a core committee constituted by the ministry
- Each state has to conduct consultations with all its stakeholders, including non-profits and civil society organisations, and send the compiled feedback to the ministry by June 7.
- For the first time, a calculated move was being made to dismantle the community-driven forest governance and strengthen the hands of the forest bureaucracy.
- In 2015, the National Democratic Alliance (NDA) government set up the TSR Subramanian Committee to suggest changes in India’s forest governance.
- One of its key recommendations was to amend IFA, 1927.
- Earlier, the M B Shah Commission too suggested amendments in 2010.
- From the onset, the process to amend IFA has been shrouded in secrecy. On September 23, 2016, the Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change (MoEFCC) constituted a committee dominated by forest bureaucrats.
- It met five times, and on December 5, 2017, a core drafting body was constituted which once again comprised the same people.
Indian Forest Act, 1927:
- The Indian Forest Act, 1927 was largely based on previous Indian Forest Acts implemented under the British. The most famous one was the Indian Forest Act of 1878.
- The Act gave the Government and Forest Department the power to create Reserved Forests, and the right to use Reserved Forests for Government use alone.
- Britishers impose Indian Forest Act, 1927 to take over Indian forests, use them to produce timber, while curtailing and extinguishing rights of millions.
- Both the 1878 act and the 1927 one sought to consolidate and reserve the areas having forest cover, or significant wildlife, to regulate movement and transit of forest produce, and duty leviable on timber and other forest produce.
- It also defines the procedure to be followed for declaring an area to be a Reserved Forest, a Protected Forest or a Village Forest.
- It defines what a forest offence is, what are the acts prohibited inside a Reserved Forest, and penalties leviable on violation of the provisions of the Act.
Need for Draft Indian Forest Act 2019:
- The Indian Forest Act, 1927 has been criticized for years for providing immense discretion and powers to the forest bureaucracy to govern areas declared as forestlands of different classes and summarily arrest and prosecute forest-dwellers.
- On several occasions states have had to cancel prosecution in hundreds of thousands of cases of alleged petty crimes imposed against tribals and other forest dwellers.
- Many experts and several Central government reports submitted under different political dispensations have blamed the draconian powers of the forest bureaucracy under the Indian Forest Act, 1927 – which the Centre proposed to now enhance – for alienating tribals and also fueling left-wing extremism in Central Indian region.
- Forest rights on ancestral lands and their (tribal and other forest dwellers’) habitat were not adequately recognized in the consolidation of State forests during the colonial period as well as in independent India resulting in historical injustice to the forest dwelling Scheduled Tribes and other traditional forest dwellers
- Forest officials, on the other hand, have often contended that they remain they remain the only face of administration over these vast difficult to access territories and have to deal with the difficult challenge of retaining the quality and extent of forest cover in the face of high population pressure and development activities.
- There was severe decline in the forest cover of the country mainly because of large-scale diversion of forest lands for agriculture, diversion for “development” projects and regularisation of encroachments by state governments.
Key features of the draft act:
- The amendment defines community as “a group of persons specified on the basis of government records living in a specific locality and in joint possession and enjoyment of common property resources, without regard to race, religion, caste, language and culture”.
- Forest is defined to include “any government or private or institutional land recorded or notified as forest/forest land in any government record and the lands managed by government/community as forest and mangroves, and also any land which the central or state government may by notification declare to be forest for the purpose of this Act.”
- The amendment has increased the focus to “conservation, enrichment and sustainable managementof forest resources and matters connected therewith to safeguard ecological stability to ensure provision of ecosystem services in perpetuity and to address the concerns related to climate change and international commitments.
- The amendments specifically deal with the Forest Rights Act, 2006 (FRA). The amendments say if the state government, after consultation with the central government, feels that the rights under FRA will hamper conservation efforts
- The amendment also introduces a new category of forests — production forest. These will be forests with specific objectives for production of timber, pulp, pulpwood, firewood, non-timber forest produce, medicinal plants or any forest species to increase production in the country for a specified period.
- police powers and capacities over forestlands: the Union government has proposed that The “State Government / Union Territory Administration shall develop the infra-structure for standardized lock-up rooms for housing the accused, transportation of accused, provide necessary articles for restraining the accused(s), armouries, safe custody of arms, ammunitions, shields, batons, helmets, armours, wireless, etc.
- Offences:Certain offences that were bailable earlier have been proposed to be made non-bailable.
- The burden of proving which shall lie on the accused, that such person is in lawful possession of forest land, forest produce, custody or control of such property and the person has not committed any offence against the Act.
- The draft law also proposes, “To provide indemnity to Forest-officer using arms etc, to prevent the forest offence. This indemnity shall be in addition to the immunity provided under section 197 of Code of Criminal Procedure 1973 for certain categories of Public Servant.
- No Forest-officer shall be arrested for any offence alleged to have been committed or purported to have been committed in discharge of his official duties, without causing out an inquiry by an authority to be notified by the State Government for the purpose.
- State governments would not be permitted to grant sanction for prosecution against forest officials for alleged wrong done or excess committed without first constituting an inquiry under an executive magistrate.
- The government proposes to create a new class of forests called ‘production forests’ as well as declare any forests as “conservation area for the purpose of enhanced carbon sequestration”
- The conservation areas will also be opened to “active forest management for enhancing vegetation growth by reforestation and afforestation.”
- The legislation has proposed a forest development cess of up to 10% of the assessed value of mining products removed from forests, and water used for irrigation or in industries.
More power to Bureaucracy:
- The proposed amendment clearly seeks to further consolidate the forest department’s power over forests.
- It gives the forest department the authority to act arbitrarily and subvert the rights of forest-dependent communities in the name of forest protection.
- It empowers the forest officials to use firearms and cause injury to prevent any “violation”.
- There are provisions to set up infrastructure to create lock up rooms and transportation facility for prisoners and to set up armories.
- The proposed amendment prescribes punishment for offences in detail—both bailable and non-bailable.
- The penalty for various offences has been increased from Rs 500 to Rs 5,000- Rs 500,000 and imprisonment has been increased from one month to seven years.
- The amendment gives the forest officials the power to seize property and sell it, even if the guilt of the accused has not been proved.
- It recognizes the confession given to the forest officer as evidence in a court of law. This is done only in extreme cases like terror-related cases.
- The amendment give the forest department the power to be the judge, jury and executioner.
Issues with draft act:
- The forest department will also have the right to impose a cess on forest produce, which is over and above the tax imposed by state governments. This is in contravention to FRA, which says that minor forest produce used by forest dwellers cannot be taxed.
- It does not take into account parameters like the density of canopy or the length of trees.
- Many states have defined forests in their own way, but these definitions have not been incorporated in the amendment.
- The proposed amendment talks about the creation of national and state forest funds aided by private companies. But experts say the creation of such forests will fuel timber harvest for commercial markets, somewhat akin to what existed in the colonial times.
- What is more worrying is that the amendment is trying to usher in a parallel system of forest governance.
- Village forests and Joint Forest Management Committees (JFMCs)—which were constituted by the forest department control forest management and which became irrelevant after FRA will now be resurrected. This will further undermine and diminish the role of gram sabhas (see “Village forests have been pitted against community rights”).
- Any new forest law must aims to reduce conflicts, incentivize tribals and stop diversion for non-forest uses.
- This can be achieved by recognizing all suitable landscapes as forests and insulating them from commercial exploitation.
- The government needs to launch a process of consultation, beginning with the State governments to ensure that a progressive law is adopted by all States, including those that have their own versions of the existing Act.
- The Centre must hear the voice of all stakeholders and communities, including independent scientific experts.
- A new law enacted should make a departure and be aimed to expand India’s forests, and ensure the well-being of traditional forest-dwellers and biodiversity in these landscapes.
- The need is for a paradigm that encourages community-led, scientifically validated conservation.
Critically examine how the “Proposed amendment to Indian Forest Act would deepen injustice” and new “Indian Forest Act draft to give sweeping powers to forest department” comment.