June 04, 2023

Forest (Conservation) Amendment Bill, 2023 Undermines Forest Laws, Nullifies Power of Grama Sabhas, says BAA

RESPONDING to the joint parliament committee’s (JPC) invitation for suggestions and comments from the public over the proposed Forest (Conservation) Amendment Bill, 2023, the Bhumi Adhikar Andolan (BAA), an umbrella organisation of outfits working on land rights, said that there are serious concerns regarding the proposed amendment bill.

In a press release issued on May 31, the BAA said that more than 150 organisations and movements across India express their anguish about the serious implications the FCA would have on the constitutional provisions which recognise and secure the rights of Scheduled Tribes (ST) and Other Traditional Forest Dwellers (OTFD). 

The BAA said that the amendments proposed in the bill undermine the Panchayat Extension to Scheduled Areas (PESA) Act, 1996, the Forest Conservation Act (FCA), 1980, Land Acquisition, Rehabilitation and Resettlement Act (LARR), 2013, National Forest Policy, 1988 and Forest Rights Act (FRA), 2006.

The All India Kisan Sabha expressed its major concerns on the very definition of ‘forest’ the FCA proposes. It said that the proposed bill was violating the recognised and vested rights of STs and OTFDs under Sections 4 (1), 3 and 5 of the FRA. The proposed amendment Section 1A (1) proposes to exempt such lands from the FCA and changing its status from ‘forest use’ to ‘use for non-forest purposes’. The new amendment clause 4 Section 1A narrows down the definitions of forest and forest land thereby contradicting the Supreme Court judgement given on December 12, 1996 (TN Godavarman Thirumulpad vs Union of India and others) that expands the definition of ‘forest’.

The insertion of Section 1A (2) corporatises and exempts certain categories of land from the purview of FCA 1980, said the BAA. 

This includes forest land situated alongside a rail line or a public road maintained by the government, which provides access to a habitation, or to a rail, and roadside amenity up to a maximum size of 0.10 hectare, and tree, tree plantation or reafforestation raised on lands that are not specified in clause (a) or (b) of sub-section (1). 

In addition, forest land situated within a distance of 100 kilometres along the international borders or Line of Control or Line of Actual Control, as the case may be, proposed to be used for construction of strategic linear project of national importance and concerning national security is exempted.

Forest land up to ten hectares, proposed to be used for construction of security related infrastructure or the forest land proposed to be used for construction of defence related project or a camp for paramilitary forces or public utility projects, as may be specified by the central government, the extent of which does not exceed five hectares in a left wing extremism affected area as may be notified by the central government, is also exempted.

Further, the amendment of Section 2 inserts a new sub-section 2 which exempts from the FCA any survey, such as reconnaissance, prospecting, investigation, or exploration including seismic survey, by saying that such survey shall not be treated as non-forest purpose.

All these exemptions violate FRA nullifying the power of gram sabha that governs over all forest land and requires the consent of gram sabha before diverting forest land, the BAA noted. 

The AIUFWP noted that the present union government eases the diversions of forest and forest land to private agencies for linear projects, mineral prospecting, grant of mining leases, creation of land banks, and granting "in principle" Stage I clearance disregarding FRA in its totality. It stated that the corporatisation and exemption categories of land from the purview of Forest Conservation Act, 1980, with the insertion of Section 1A (2) will lead to massive deforestation and degradation of environment, disturbance in biodiversity and livelihood of forest dependent communities. The proposed amendments are pro-corporate, pro-industrialists, pro-privatisation and pro-bureaucratic control, and clearly shift the democratic governance of forests from gram sabhas.

The BAA demanded that the proposed Forest (Conservation) Amendment Bill, 2023 be immediately withdrawn or revisited and the Act be drafted in compliance with the provisions of FRA. It said that the exercise should ensure a stronger legal mechanism conceding the primary authority of gram sabha to conserve, protect and should comply with the fulfilment of the legal mandate of ensuring forest rights being vested in the decision-making of gram sabhas prior to any diversion of forest land.

BAA said that it observed malafide intentions of the present government undermining and diluting the rights of Scheduled Tribes and Other Forest Dwellers through the proposed amendments bill. 

The AIAWU condemned the intentions of the government and feared that the government would bring back the draconian and colonial law of the past, “Indian Forest Act, 1927”.

The All India Kisan Mahasabha expressed its anguish on the malafide intentions of the present government that is well defined as it paves way to land grabbing for corporates.

The BAA called for observing “Black Day” on June 30, 2023 with a nation-wide demonstration at block and district level to strengthen demands for land rights.