New forest law would put framers of the colonial act to shame -Anup Sinha
Some clauses of the draft of the Indian Forest Act 2019 are extraordinarily undemocratic
Forests are considered planetary resources of great importance: as carbon sinks, as repositories for biodiversity, as effective tools for local climate control, and as a source of timber and related produce. Forests have been dwelling places for people, too. It is important from the point of view of sustainable development that forests be preserved and biodiversity conserved for future generations. Sustainable development also entails that the present generation does not suffer in the process. There is a persistent tension between present demands and future security. In India for centuries, forests have been used by human beings for a variety of purposes — from habitat to a store of food to sources of livelihood. Anywhere between 100 million to 300 million people, mostly tribes, live in and around forests. They are poor and undernourished, with little education and access to healthcare. They depend on the forests for living and livelihoods. They have always lived in harmony within the ecosystem of forests.
It was in the late 19th and early 20th centuries that the British began to treat forests as wasteland that could be used for extending agricultural production of commercial crops. Forests could also be used as a source of timber for export. Timber was extensively used in railway sleepers during the rapid expansion of railway tracks. To consolidate the colonial government’s hold on the forest land and resources, the Indian Forest Act of 1927 was passed. According to it, there were three categories of forests: reserved, protected and village. A reserved forest could be notified on any tract of forest or wasteland not belonging to the government. In such a forest, nothing was permitted unless allowed by the government. Forest officials became the real controllers. Protected forests were notified areas where trees, or a class of trees and, much later, some endangered species were preserved. The government was allowed to assign rights for using a part of a reserve forest (usually adjacent to a village) to be used by the local community. The upshot was clear: the government could ‘create’ forestland, exploit it according to need, and the original forest dwellers became trespassers in their own land, living at the mercy of forest officials.
In the last four or five decades the environmental value of forests began to be better appreciated, but people continued to be left out of the discourse on conservation. If anything, the practices of forest dwellers were looked upon with suspicion. Their farming and hunting practices could make forests unsustainable. Without alternative employment and new livelihoods, forest dwellers were left out of the bonanza of both the socialist model of development as well as the neo-liberal one.
Social activism finally led the United Progressive Alliance government to enact the Forest Rights Act in 2006, which brought back people into the discussion. Claims of rights based on past evidence of residence and connections with forests were allowed to be heard and considered. But even after 13 years of the enactment only 3 per cent of the claims have been settled. A large number of claims have been rejected. Two things are fuzzy about the law. First, for a genuine forest dweller it is difficult to provide legally acceptable documents. Second, false claims could also be made to enter the forest and use resources for commercial purposes. This legal twilight zone led to increased harassment, evictions, extortions and even molestation by forest officials. They have complete authority over the lives of the genuine forest dwellers. But the important thing about the 2006 FRA was the de jure recognition of forest people and their entitlements.
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