October 10, 2021

Ministry Proposals Favour Private Interests

CPI(M) Polit Bureau member,  Brinda Karat, has written a letter to Bhupendra Yadav, union minister for environment, forests and climate change, government of India on October 6, on the ‘Consultation Paper on Proposed amendments in the Forest (Conservation) Act 1980’ (FCA).  Below we publish the text of the letter.

THE ministry has invited comments/suggestions on proposed amendments in the FCA. However the actual amendments are not circulated but only a general note. In our experience a reading of concrete amendments and its wording is critical in formulating a response. The above circular also only gives 15 days for sending in comments, not even 30 days as called for by the pre-legislative consultation policy.

Studying the concrete amendments is all the more necessary since at first reading the proposals appear to be designed to undo various Supreme Court judgements related to protection of forests and payment of net present value compensation (NPV) and compensatory afforestation (CA) mandatory for diversion of forest land. It is noticed that wherever any “inconvenience” is perceived for project proponents using forest land for non-forest purposes, the note proposes to simply waive application of the FCA. Given the context of privatisation of infrastructure projects which require forest land, the proposals will not only facilitate takeover of forest land, but make it cheaper and easier for corporates, intending to take the benefits of privatisation. This also includes mining companies with the mining sector being opened up for takeover by domestic and foreign companies. This is what underlies the points raised in the note, which we oppose as they are more concerned about protecting private interests and projects rather than addressing environment concerns.

The proposals tend to dilute the rights of the states to notify forests thereby further centralising authority in the central government. Further centralisation is  another ground to oppose the proposals.

In the “Consultation Paper” there is no mention, not even once, on protection of the rights of tribal communities and other traditional forest dwellers in any of the amendments proposed. The direction of amendments proposed will directly impact on the rights granted under the Forest Rights Act, 2006. It should be noted that under the FRA Section 2 (d) “forest land” means “land of any description falling within any forest area and includes unclassified forests, undemarcated forests, existing or deemed forests, protected forests, reserved forests, sanctuaries and national parks.”  The thrust of the Consultation Note is to loosen definition of forests, protected forests, deemed forests etc so as to remove them from the conditions of diversion to non-forestry purposes without  any reference as to how this will affect tribal communities and  forest dwellers. This is the third reason to oppose the proposals as the note is completely silent on protection of the rights granted by law to tribal communities and other traditional forest dwellers.

To cite some examples:

The “Consultation Paper” in B 1 proposes to change the definition as well as procedures for defining forest land to protect the rights of plantation owners or private owners. The present procedures adopted under the law by state governments have been described as being “subjective and arbitrary” causing “resentment and resistance from private individuals and organisations.” Who are these individuals? Have any of them approached the courts for protection?  How much land do they hold “without vegetation” and in that case why do ceiling laws not apply to them? The proposal amounts to liberalisation of the present structure to permit easier diversion of forest land for non-forestry purposes without heed to any regulation and will end up privatising forests and forest resources. If really necessary, as case by case examination by MoEFCC may show, then any exemption may be granted by a duly authorised expert committee, rather than through a blanket exemption provision as proposed.

But strangely in Point B 3 (i) and (ii) the opposite argument is used namely that such land if handed over to private “owners” to be used without any conditions,  will be used by them to grow forests and will help India achieve the required forest cover according to our international commitments. How did government reach such a conclusion? There is no explanation. Whereas Point 1 argues for exemption from the FCA on grounds that “it restricts an individual’s right to use his/her own land for non-forest activity”, Point 3 argues that exemption should be given so that more trees can be planted without worrying about the conditions of the law! In other words, big plantations can be raised for commercial purposes. It is to be noted that the new  Forest Policy (2018) has mentioned a fourth type of forest called “production forests” or plantation forests, besides the usual reserve forests, protected forests and  unclassified or village forests as per Forest Act 1927, however without adequate regulatory provisions. If private lands are to be dealt with, suitable regulations governing this type of forest including prohibition of any diversion of the other three types of forest lands have to be there.

In B 2 the note refers to “resentment of railways, ministry of roads”  etc for having to make additional payments for land acquired prior to 1980 but only partially used. The resentment is that now if they are to use the unused land, they will have to accept the financial responsibilities of compensation payments for diversion of land developed as forest land through government schemes. The first question that arises is prior to 1980 who were these lands acquired from? If the government has failed to use the land for the purpose acquired, the first claimant on the land must be the original owners, who would probably be tribal communities and other forest dwellers. If it was non-forest land that was originally acquired, B 2 also states that in the meanwhile trees were raised on the land not utilised and were categorised as “protected forests.” As has been stated earlier, tribal communities have established rights within “protected forests.” What will happen to those rights? The proposal of the ministry is to exempt such land acquired before 1980 from the purview of the Act. In other words the ministry wants to handover large tracts of protected forest land to private companies via ministries of railways, road, transport etc or even for other commercial non-forest purposes by these entities. This would be against the proclaimed aim of the ministry itself to ensure adequate afforestation.

National security issues have been raised to permit projects in the name of national security to escape the provisions of the law. This is a specious argument as national security concerns can and must be fulfilled according to the requirements of law. Again, specific projects may be considered after Environmental Impact Assessment and granted exemptions along with conditions by duly constituted independent expert committees. Blanket exemptions with no questions asked are unacceptable.

The other points are also clearly to enable access to forests for commercial purposes for mining and for use of technologies for oil and gas drilling such as in Points B8 and B9.

In spite of benefits under the FRA 2006, the FCA is still used to file cases against tribal communities. Thousands of members of tribal communities have suffered arrest under the Act. The proposal to enhance the penalties has to be examined in the light of the experience of forest dwellers. Stronger penalties against big companies and private businesses who violate the law are welcome. But the very purpose of the proposals is to protect the interests of these sections.

I would request you not to go ahead with these proposals as they are nothing but liberalisation to favour private interests over the interests of tribal communities, traditional forest dwellers and environmental concerns.