New Amendments to  Indian Forest Rights Act 2006  To help  Big  corporations

forest rights act

While nominating Mrs. Draupadi Murmu,as candidate to President of India, ruling BJP  boasted a savior of tribal people. However, by proposing  changes to Forest Rights Act, 2006, the government is doing quite  the opposite by subverting  the interests of tribal people to benefit big companies.

During the current monsoon session of Indian Parliament new rules are proposed to the present Forest Rights Act 2006. These changes run against  interests of tribal people, conservation of forests and only serve  large corporations. These amendments are being introduced to hand over  community owned  forests  to private mining and pharmaceutical companies. The Union Environment ministry is introducing a bill  to make amendments to the  Forest Rights Act 2006. FRA was  enacted in Parliament in 2006 by the  then UPA government with active support from Left parties to protect the interests of tribal population.  Indian forests are home to nearly 200 million people  who are directly dependent on forests for primary livelihood, while around 100 million people live on land classified as forest. In short, Adivasis  living in forests are the true  custodians of biological resources.

In the new 2022 Forest Conservation Rules, environment ministry introduced the rule 6(b)(ii) that liberalizes diversion of forest land to private parties with no compliance with the Forest Rights Act 2006. The changes empower the district collector  overriding the approval of Gram Sabhas and transfer the forest land to private parties after charging from them a nominal fee per hectar. The acquired parties will have unlimited proprietary rights to fell trees, displace wild life to develop the acquired land for uses that  include underground mining and construction of buildings.

In British colonial times  the Indian Forest Act of 1878. Was brought to regulate movement and transit of forest produce, and duty leviable on timber and other forest produce to facilitate large scale tree felling and export of enormous forest wealth and lumber to England. Over the decades the  forest cover  shrunk (by nearly 40 percent between 1810 and 1950), resulting changes in monsoon patterns, droughts and famines in Indian subcontinent. Many of the tribes, the centuries old natural custodians of these forests lost many of their ancestral and cultural rights and were driven away from forests by colonial masters.

Primarily FRA 2006 was brought by then UPA government to undo the historical  injustice mooted to Adivasis from colonial British Indian Forest Act of 1878, and empower them. FRA, 2006 recognizes the rights of the forest dwelling tribal communities and other traditional forest dwellers to forest resources, on which these communities were dependent for livelihood, habitation and other socio-cultural needs. Also the entities in section 6(1A) and (1B) proposed in the  2022  Forest Act Amendment Bill run against  the spirit of  United Nation’s Convention of Biological Diversity and the Nagoya Protocol on Access and Benefit Sharing (article 5) to which India is a party.

The new 2022 Forest Conservation Rules affirm that “clear felling” is indeed “removal of all natural vegetation” from land of size up to 40 ha and above, Present NDA  government abdicating its Constitutional duties to protect the rights of STs and other traditional forest dwellers.

In the name of ‘Ease of doing business’ the ministry has now replaced Gram Sabhas, state governments, various (affected) peoples committees with a ‘lean machinery’ consisting of a few designated officers and an advisory committee at the ministry. In summary, the forest bureaucracy controls all the approvals for forest land diversification proposals. Also the proposed amendments violate the 203 judgement of Hon’ble Supreme Court mandating Gram Sabha’s approval for diversion of forest land.

The tribal affairs ministry castigated the environment ministry, asserting that it was the nodal body for the Forest Rights Act, and that such orders of the environment ministry shouldn’t be considered. At this point, the Prime Minister’s Office (PMO) overruled the tribal affairs ministry’s objections. And on the PMO’s instruction, the environment ministry drafted the the present amendments to the FRA 2006

Indian forests are home to about 17,000 species of flowering plants and wild animals  Opposing the amendments, biologists, conservationists and legal experts feel liberalizing the existing norms could be detrimental to ongoing forest conservation, biodiversity efforts and run against the principle of sharing commercial benefits with indigenous communitie. . Adivasis are custodians of biological resources, and the entities in section 6(1A) and (1B) proposed in the Amendment Bill are against the spirit of Convention of Biological Diversity and the Nagoya Protocol on Access and Benefit Sharing (article 5) to which India is a party.

The bill is being introduced in forthcoming Monsoon session of Indian Parliament without seeking public comments, as required under the pre-legislative consultative policy in the country.

The forests are often referred as “lungs of the planet” because they generally draw in carbon dioxide and breathe out oxygen.  The rainforests generate over 40 percent of the world ‘s oxygen. Thus forest is defined as lungs of the Earth  Any  legislative acts promoting deforestation accelerates present global warming today.

The government should immediately withdraw the proposed changes to FRA 2006 aimed to benefit large mining, Pharma industries and safeguard the rights of tribals and avert further deforestation.

Dr. Soma Marla, Principal Scientist, ICAR NBPGR, New Delhi

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