Draft Indian Forest Act and its impact on Manipur and North East States of India
By Robert Yumnam & Christina Lalremdik
The north eastern states of India, accounts for a total of 24.5% of the country’s forest cover area. Indian forest has constantly been misused and over-exploited since the colonial British era. Introduction of the Indian Forest Act, 1927 by British had pave ways for the country’s forest products to be exploited in the name of protection of forest covered areas. Since then, many other forest policies were introduced in order to develop a more comprehensive policy for protection and increase in the country’s total forest cover area. Today, there has been a paradigm shift in the policies and laws intended for amendment of the existing forest laws.
The draft Indian Forest Policy, 2018 along with the new draft of Indian Forest Act, 2019 which were newly introduced to address contemporary challenges to India’s forests failed to recognize the rights of indigenous community and do not mention any provisions for protection of forest dwelling communities whose survival solely depended upon forests and its products thereby, indicating that the newly introduced policies and acts will significantly affect traditional forest governance in Manipur and North East region of India. The draft amendments also included definitions of terms like forests, pollution, ecological services etc. Forest as defined in the new amendment arbitrarily include “any government or private or institutional land recorded or notified as forest/forest land in any government record and the lands managed by government/community as forest and mangroves, and also any land which the central or state government may by notification declare to be forest for the purpose of this Act.” “Village forests”, according to the proposed Act, may be forestland or wasteland, which is the property of the government and would be jointly managed by the community through the Joint Forest Management Committee, whose existence had evolved numerous conflicts over land rights, sustenance, commercial use and preservation of environment and ecology in the forest covered areas rather than integrating the overall governance of the forest areas.
The affinity between forest and indigenous community is not a simple matter to be looked over as they are in equilibrium with one another. Forest has long since become the dwelling place for various communities who had survived through generations by utilizing the resources provided by forest, be it water, trees, grasslands, valley etc. Such communities acquired their own unique traditional methods of cultivation, and many other techniques on utilizing plants and animals as a means of treatment for disease, injury etc. Forest also played a significant part in the cultural and traditional aspects of such communities. The rich artistic diversity of the north eastern states of India originates from the nature itself. Forest has provided these communities with their basic needs and the people in turn nurture the ecology of the forest. The Government has failed to recognize the existence of these forest dwelling communities in their forest land.
The objective of the Indian Forest Act, 2019 is to formulate a strong forest law in order to increase the country’s current forest cover of 24% to 33% by focusing on its conservation, enrichment and sustainable management of forest resources, at the same time safeguarding ecological stability. The act also aims to strengthen the forest bureaucracy in terms of deciding title claims over forest land, what parts to be declared for conservation and checking encroachments. However, the pragmatic conservation focus that the Government has put forward can be very different from the theoretical belief. It will only led to conscription of community rights over forest land and eventually displace indigenous communities from their land and forest areas. The proposed legislation accords significant powers to India’s forest officers — including the power to issue search warrants, enter and investigate lands within their jurisdictions, and to provide indemnity to forest officers using arms to prevent forest-related offences. The officials are safe from prosecution under the new Forest Act, which is much similarity with the clauses of the Armed Forces Special Protection Act (AFSPA), 1958, that conferred exemplary powers to the armed forces to investigate and kill without the fear of prosecution, all with legal impunity in Manipur. The declaration of forest areas for wildlife conservation in Keibul Lamjao led to the recent murder of one villager identified as Heisnam Saratkumar, 48 years, for allegedly killing wild boars from Keibul Lamjao National Park. Mr Saratkumar, who was arrested on 14th February 2019, was found dead inside the Keibul Lamjao police station lock-up on 17th February, 2019. The Khuga dam incident that took place on 14th December, 2015, where three protestors were shot dead by the army officials is also one illustration such military power. The draft law is an indication that the Government intends to continue to resolve conflict situation in the same manner when it is evident that such an indecent killing due to over-use of power by the forest officer will pose a serious threat to the lives of indigenous forest dwelling communities in near future.
The newly introduced draft has entirely dissolved the role of traditional village authorities, which had the decision making power under Forest Rights Act, 2006 (FRA). The clause reads, “Whenever fire is caused willfully or by gross negligence in a reserved forest, or theft of forest produce or grazing by cattle occur…the State Government may…direct that in such forest or any portion thereof, the exercise of all rights of pasture or to forest-produce shall be suspended for such a period as it may think fit.” Basically, the indigenous people are going to be completely at the mercy of the government, without any real rights or agency. Given the conditions that are being constructed, it seems inevitable that they will be compelled to leave their forests, leading to their impoverishment and pauperization. The draft also gives power to the central Government to intervene over the state in relation to matters of management of forestlands, overruling the states on several counts when it deems fit. Even more astounding is the fact that the central government can rule over the state governments if they do not agree how their forests should be used, clearly undermining the federal structure of India.
With the rise in amount of developmental projects like hydro electrical projects, Trans Asian railways, roads and oil extraction within the North Eastern states, the draft Indian Forest Act, 2019, increased the vulnerability of the forest covered areas, by transferring the forest land for mining leases, for hydropower projects, extractive industries and other mega projects. It is quite bewildering that India takes no consideration of environmental concerns when it comes to installation of mega developmental projects, which requires thousands of hectares of land with subsequent impacts on thousands of indigenous population and destruction on land and ecology.
The law also talks about commercialization of forest by handing over forest to private companies for producing large amount of certain type of forests products. Such provisions will become a hindrance to the farmers and agricultural workers as production forest meant involvement of certain type of scientific and technical tools which is very foreign to them. Thus the newly introduce draft will not only strip them off their rightful land but also make them unproductive. Forest has always been a home for the indigenous communities of the north eastern states. The forest provides them their basic requirements and helps them maintain their livelihoods. These indigenous lives had their own unique traditional practices which have been passed on generation to generation and forceful displacement of such communities to a location which is unfamiliar to them will result in various social issues.
Targeting forest for mitigating climate change through a market oriented model will create human rights and environmental concerns. The provisions of the newly introduced draft violate the international human rights, laws and conventions. The Government of India should look for alternative ways to restore and maintain the ecology of the country’s forest land and acknowledge the indigenous forest dwelling communities as the rightful owner instead of considering them merely as intruders who lived off the resources without contributing to any of the country’s developmental attributes. The Government should consider the significance of indigenous community’s unique and traditional practice of farming and other forest related management practices that have been carried forward for generations and come up with an integrated forest management plan for each community.
The Government should recognize the community’s right to ownership of land and forest. Any developmental projects should acquire an informed consent of the community before its commission with a throughout inspection of its feasibility and devise means to instill a sense of responsibility to the community so as to increase people’s participation in developmental programs thereby assuring development in all dimensions. It is high time that Government realizes the intrinsic value of the indigenous community inhibiting the forest land as well and to end implementation of forest laws which can neither promote nor improve the livelihood sustainability of the forest dwellers. Indigenous inhabitants of forest are also components of the forest. Therefore, the authority concerned for forest management must consider the well-being of the fellow humans as a priority in formulation of forest related laws.
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