By: Swapnil Katiyar
With the 17th Lok Sabha elections round the corner, the contenders of the game are leaving no stone unturned. Contributing to another attempt of ‘bringing democratic structure’, the Union government recently proposed an upturning of the Indian Forest Act, 1927. With immediate effect, the Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change has come up with the first draft of the amendments to the Indian Forest Act, 1927. The amendments have been laid down with the primary objective of abolishing the 1927 Act; as it was a reproduction of the colonial era and a sign of the oppression perpetrated by the British. Ironically, in the direction of curbing the colonial power, the Centre has ended up giving much more power to the forest officials than what is required.
The draft amendment demarcates various powers of the forest department and lays down policies for commercial use, infrastructure, et al. At the very foremost, it talks about the restoration of the veto power granted to the forest bureaucracy. This was annulled by the Forest Rights Act, 2006 but the 2019 Amendment states that in order to exercise effective management in the department, the power of veto is necessary. In addition to this, the law regarding forceful attendance of the witnesses, investigation, and seizure of property has also been enhanced.
The main objective of the amendment was to remove the draconian law of ‘arresting forest dwellers by the colonial masters’, but the draft did not only retain the law it also magnified it. Attributable to this, the forest officials can not only restrict tribal and forest dwellers from accessing forest lands and produce but can also punish the whole community for the act of an individual.
Into the bargain, the government has gone a step further and shifted the onus of proving innocence on the accused; the person is presumed to be guilty until they prove otherwise. This particular change is more detrimental than beneficial. The Law Commission of India in its 277th Report talked about how wrongful incarceration, conviction, and prosecution are defeating principles of justice. In order to curb this, the notion of ‘innocent until proven guilty’ should be adhered to. Yet, the current amendment goes on to give colossal discretion to the forest bureaucracy in the name of curbing colonial power.
The rationale given by the Centre for providing the forest officials with paramount power is that they are the sole face of administration in the forest areas. Since they work in a challenging atmosphere and have to deal with not only the quality of the forest cover but also the quantity of the tribal and forest dwellers, it is imperative for them to exercise certain discretion and control. Prima facie, the reasons might seem to be valid, but the discretion amounted for such reason is disproportionate and thus, the rationale ends up being in a questionable arena. The unjust amplification of power will only lead to bureaucratic overreach and alienation of tribal and forest dwellers. This will eventually incite left-wing extremism and create a situation of unrest in Central India. The provisions not only affect the poor dwellers but are also contrary to the ultimate goal of growth, development, and empowerment.
Instead of delivering anti-colonial laws, the Union has ended up increasing bureaucratic power and the Centre’s rule. The amendment clarifies that the Centre has the utmost authority to intervene in matters dealt by respective states, along with the power to annul/overrule the decisions when it deems fit. Additionally, changes resulting in the leasing of patches of forest lands for commercial plantation have also been approved. All of this has led to an increase in forest bureaucracy, and privatisation and commercialisation of forest land, while ‘nothing’ is left in the hands of tribes and forest dwellers.
In the current scenario, it is of vital importance to realise that forests are not only home to Adivasis and other forest dwellers, but are also an essential part of the environment. With an increase in globalisation and development, it is equally required to analyse the importance of natural surroundings. Regarding the amendments in forest laws, the need for preserving the forests should have been the primary objective and the laws should have been woven around it. What is provided by the Union is not even an iota of what is required. Thus, it is important for further amendments to be made so that the laws that come into force are indeed a portrayal of the welfare of citizens.
The new law should not only depart from colonial power, but also from forest bureaucracy. The primary objective should be to ensure the quality of forest areas and well-being of tribe and forest dwellers. This can be met with by drafting of adequate policies to combat conflicts and to immobilise the subjugation of dwellers. In India, only 2.99% of the geographical area is categorised as dense forest; the rest of the green area, i.e. 21.54%, is a mixture of open and moderately dense forests. Therefore, it is important to save all 24.53% of the area from commercial exploitation and make laws and policies to improve the quality and convert the moderately dense forests into dense ones.
For these changes to come into existence, initiatives should be taken by the whole community. The Centre should encourage independent scientific evaluation of the forests as it shall be entirely impartial, and the benefits will be reaped for the development of forests, and not for the pockets of corrupt bureaucrats. A public hearing process should also be enacted, and the reports and assessments should be treated as a matter of great importance by the government. The government should not aim to control states or look for instances to exercise their power; rather it should work for the holistic development of the country.
Forests are not an entity which can be sidelined. They have a major impact on the environment and climate, which in turn affects the agriculture of the country. Hence, it wouldn’t be erroneous to state that for the overall growth of India, it is imperative for the Indian Forest laws to be in tandem with the needs and requirements of the people. Therefore, the amendment should, in essence, be focused on enhancing the quality of forest lands, and not on superficially combating colonial power on paper.
(Swapnil is currently a third-year student at National Law University, Jodhpur.)