Proposed amendment to Indian Forest Act would deepen injustice

By Gladson Dungdung

singhbhum-singhbhum-jharkhand-village-saranda-crossing-villager_9cd2a066-43e2-11e9-bbe0-3816edd40ae7The amendments proposed in the colonial-era Indian Forest Act, 1927 reflect the Centre’s attempt to grab natural resources owned by the Adivasis for generations. As per the new draft, forest officials have been given the absolute authority to shoot Adivasis for “violation of laws”[1]. If a forest guard kills a so-called “offender”, the move will invite no prosecution by the state governments without first initiating an inquiry into the matter under an executive magistrate. Under the new amendment, forest departments can also declare any forest as reserved and alienate the Adivasis and other forest-dwelling communities from their ancestral lands.

This will have a terrible effect on the Adivasis, who are struggling for survival. As per the Census data 2011, Adivasis are 8.6% of the total population of India, which is 104 million people. Out of these merely 8.9% of them have shifted to small towns and the cities, and 91.1% of them still live in or near the forests, which clearly means that most of the Adivasi population will be affected if the amendments are enforced.

In India, forest governance has turned significantly democratic in the past few years. Back in 1976, the National Commission on Agriculture had advocated for commercialization of forests ‘at all costs and with disregard to the sustenance of Adivasis in the forests.’[2] The Commission completely denied the rights and privileges of the Adivasis and other forest dweller communities. The Commission also alleged that ‘free supply of forest produce to the rural population and the rights and privileges have brought destruction to the forests and so it is necessary to reverse the process. Based on that, the Forest (Conservation) Act, 1980 came into being.

However, through the National Forest Policy of 1988, the Centre recognized the symbiotic relationship between Adivasis and forests for the first time. This was then consolidated with the passage of the Forest Rights Act (FRA), 2006, when the Centre agreed that historical injustice had been committed and tried to undo the wrong. But with the proposed amendment, the injustice will be deeper.

During the 1980s and 1990s, at least the Centre showed sympathy for the Adivasis, because of which important legislations like FRA and the Provisions of Panchayat (Extension to Scheduled Areas) Act, 1996 (PESA), were enacted. But in the past five years, I have noticed that the Indian State has dishonoured these laws by being harsh with Adivasis. If the proposed amendment comes into force, Adivasis will be defenseless while the forest department will be powerful. Earlier, foresters used to allege that Adivasis are Maoists in disguise. After the amendment is passed, the forest bureaucracy will term them as “encroachers” and shoot. It will change the fundamentals of community-driven forest governance. The proposed amendments to the Indian Forest Act will deepen the injustice against the Adivasis.

[1] Letter of the Inspector General of Forest Ministry of Environment and Climate Change (Govt. of India) dated 7th March 2019.

[2] Hiramath, S.R. Kaniwalli, Sadanand & Kulkarni, Sharad. pp xxiii.

 



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