Insights into Editorial: Humanise the law: draft Indian Forest Act
The Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change (MoEF&CC) has finalised the first draft of the comprehensive amendments to the Indian Forest Act, 1927 (IFA) and sent to states for consultation.
The Indian Forest Act, 1927 (IFA) is the backbone of forest governance in India.
The original law, the Indian Forest Act, 1927, is an incongruous relic, its provisions having been drafted to suit the objectives of a colonial power that had extractive uses for forests in mind.
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.
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.
Britishers impose Indian Forest Act, 1927 to take over Indian forests, use them to produce timber, while curtailing and extinguishing rights of millions.
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.
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.
India State of Forest Report (ISFR) 2017 released by MoEFCC:
India is ranked 10th in the world, with 24.4% of land area under forest and tree cover, even though it accounts for 2.4 % of the world surface area and sustains the needs of 17 % of human and 18 % livestock population.
The total forest and tree cover are 24.39 per cent of the geographical area of the country.
However, the critical side is, only 2.99% of India’s geographic area is classified as very dense forest.
The rest of the green cover of a total of 21.54% is nearly equally divided into open and moderately dense forest, according to the State of Forest Report 2017.
Concerns with regard to the present Draft Bill:
- The draft Bill reinforces the idea of bureaucratic control of forests, providing immunity for actions such as use of firearms by personnel to prevent an offence.
- The hard-line policing approach is reflected in the emphasis on creating infrastructure to detain and transport the accused.
- To penalise entire communities through denial of access to forests for offences by individuals.
- Such provisions invariably affect poor inhabitants, and run counter to the empowering and egalitarian goals that produced the Forest Rights Act.
- For decades now, the Forest Department has resisted independent scientific evaluation of forest health and biodiversity conservation outcomes.
- In parallel, environmental policy has weakened public scrutiny of decisions on diversion of forests for destructive activities such as mining and large dam construction.
- Impact assessment reports have mostly been reduced to a farce, and the public hearings process has been
- The exclusion of ‘village forestry’ from the preview of Forest Right Act (forest official supersedes Gram Sabha) is legally contradictory and would add confusion on the ground.
- The draft mentions that the state governments could take away the rights of the forest dwellers if the government feels it is not in line with “conservation of the proposed reserved forest” by payment to the people impacted or by the grant of land.
India’s forests play a key role in moderating the lives of not just the adivasis and other traditional dwellers, but everyone in the subcontinent, through their impact on the climate and monsoons. Their health can be improved only through collaboration.
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.
The finalising law should aim to reduce conflicts, incentivise tribals and stop diversion for non-forest uses.
This can be achieved by recognising all suitable landscapes as forests and insulating them from commercial exploitation.
As per the latest FAO report, India is placed 8th in the list of Top Ten nations reporting the greatest annual net gain in forest area.
Forests play a vital role in water conservation and improve the water regime in the area.
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 Government has recently enacted a Bill in the Parliament for taking out bamboo from the tree category, where it is grown outside forest areas.
This will encourage people to grow bamboo on private lands, which will be helpful in increasing the livelihood opportunities for farmers and also enhance the green cover and carbon stock of the country.
The need is for a paradigm that encourages community-led, scientifically validated conservation.