India’s Forest Policy Dilutions Amidst Forest Loss In Manipur
By Jiten Yumnam
Forest loss has become as obvious reality in Manipur, primarily due to unsustainable development practices and the increased unsustainability of traditional livelihood practices due to myriad factors, viz, climate change, population pressures and conflict related pressures on forest and community land etc. Manipur, considered as one of the States with high forest covered states, is now reeling in forest loss, both in quantitative and qualitative terms. According to the Forest Report, 2011 published by the Ministry of Environment and Forest, Government of India, Manipur lost 190 sq km of forest areas in 2009 and 2010. Despite these, there are series of policies introduced related to forest conservation and protection that actually will contribute in the further deterioration of forest cover in Manipur. The Indian Forest Act, 2019, envisaged as an amendment to the Indian Forest Act, 1927 (IFA) will significantly affects the traditional forest governance in Manipur and India’s North East. The Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change (MoEFCC) earlier published the Draft National Forest Policy 2018 in early 2018.
The newly introduced draft raised much concern for the rights and welfare of the indigenous community whose survival solely depended upon forests and its products since time immemorial. The original act, IFA, was introduced by the British in colonial times to exploit Indian forests for their resources to sustain the vast British Empire and its wars of aggression. The new act is much akin to the reinforcement of the British colonial legacy in areas of their political domination.
With the rise in amount of developmental projects like hydro projects, transition railways, roads and oil extraction within the state, the drafted Indian Forest Act, 2019 further will increase the vulnerability of the forest covered areas of the state, by transferring the forest land for mining leases, for hydropower projects, extractive industries and other infrastructure projects. Indeed, the Indian government recently released 170,000 hectares of pristine forest land in Chhattisgarh in Central India for a private coal project of Adani group, one of the biggest corporations in India. It is astonishing that India takes no consideration of environmental concerns and gives away pristine forest land to such a company. The forest in Manipur will no longer be safe with the Government’s absolute right to control and alienate for non-forestry purposes without consulting and taking consent of communities.
Manipur also witnessed massive diversion of forest land due to the aggressive push for large scale and unsustainable projects. At least 595 Hectares of Forest land had been diverted for Mapithel dam. The recommendation of the Forest Departments of Manipur and Mizoram to divert 27,000 hectares and 1370 hectares of Forest land in Manipur and Mizoram to be submerged for the 1500 MW Tipaimukh Multipurpose Hydroelectric Project only indicates the ever preparedness to sacrifice forest land in the pretext of economic development. The diversion of 1,005.055 hectares (ha) of forest land for construction of 111 km long Jiribam-Tupul-Impal railway line in Manipur has been recommended by FAC despite the clear violation of the Forest Conservation Act, 1980 by the Railway authorities and the Government of Manipur. The diversion of forest was carried out in an exclusive process without recognizing community rights over their forest and taking the consent. The proposed plans to build nearly Fifteen mega Dams over the Barak River, Irang River, Leimatak River, etc and the proposed extensive plan for oil exploration and drilling and mining of Chromium and Limestone will entail wide destruction of forest land.
The draft Indian Forest Act, 2019 allows forest officials to restrict indigenous peoples’ rights over forest and to relocate them against their will. The definition of forest to include, “any government or private or institutional land notified as forest/forest land in any government record and the lands managed by government / community as forest and mangroves ……” is problematic as the definition of forest with heavy inclination on the absolute control of forest by the Government is arbitrary to the community rights over forest that sustained life, biodiversity and their cultures and such policy will only entail displacement from forest areas. Forest is also where indigenous peoples maintained close survival relationship. The first draft of the India Forest Act, 2019 presume that people accused of crimes by forest authority are guilty if certain materials are claimed to be found on them even without evidence.
The amended IFA 2019 will only strengthen the forest bureaucracy in terms of deciding on how to decide on title claims over forest land, what parts to be declared for conservation and checking encroachments, thus conscripting indigenous peoples’ rights over their forest. The conservation focus will unleash displacement of indigenous communities from their land and forest. The declaration of forest areas for wildlife conservation in Keibul Lamjao National Park in Manipur led to killing of villagers on charges of intrusion in the park, which otherwise was their traditional forest land. A man arrested by Keibul police on 14 February 2019 for killing wild boars from Keibul Lamjao National Park was found dead in their custody. No prosecution of those involved in the incident was initiated so far.
The amendment proposed to provide indemnity to Forest-officer using arms etc, to prevent the forest offence, defined by Forest departments. Forest-officer not below the rank of a Ranger shall have power to hold an inquiry into forest offences and shall have the powers to search or issue a search warrant under the Code of Criminal Procedure, 1973. While the Indian Forest Act 1927 made British rulers and later the Indian government the owner of the forest lands, the Indian Government has now introduced extremely punitive actions against the real owners, i.e., the indigenous people in the new Act. The extra ordinary powers to be conferred to forest officials will increase the case of human rights violations, especially targeting indigenous peoples depending on their forest for survival. 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, 1958, enforced in Manipur and across India’s North East, conferring powers to the armed forces to search without warrant and kill on mere suspicion with legal impunity. There are no clauses to punish the Government officials and the corporate bodies involved in massive forest of community forest rights or for arbitrary diversion of forest for unsustainable development processes like hydropower projects, mining, oil exploration etc. In the proposed bill, the onus to prove innocence has been shifted to the accused. The crimes associated with forests and indigenous peoples could be an easy guess – for example, resisting the takeover of forest land for mining etc. Even entire villages could be held guilty and punished if the government feels they are not cooperating.
The role of traditional village authorities, which had the decision making power under FRA, 2006 has been dissolved entirely. Basically, the indigenous people are going to be completely at the mercy of the government and forest department, without any real rights or agency and will be compelled to leave their forests, leading to their impoverishment. The new amendment will undermine the provisions and rights conferred to indigenous population under the FRA 2016 that recognize community ownership of forest and due to the absence of proper survey, settlement and land record which will eventually result in the Government of India considering the rightful owner of the forest land as encroachers. Even more astounding is the fact that the central government can rule over the state governments on contestations on forest management and use, undermining India’s federal structure.
The law proposes to open any patch of forests it deems fit for commercial plantations through either the forest administration or through private agencies, eventually reducing the power of indigenous community’s control over their rightly own land to capital oriented corporate bodies. Commercialization of forest is a major threat to the forest dwelling communities. Most of these communities depend upon the non-timber forest products. The amendment prioritizes the increase in plantation timber and other commercial forest products which will eventually reduce the production of non-timber forest products thereby, directing affecting the livelihood of the forest dwelling communities. Moreover, economic use of timber can be very dangerous as the new law do not specified on how government can monitor the exploitation of the forest by the corporate.
The new forest act 2019 has provision to hand over forests to private companies for afforestation and grab other forests in the name of carbon sequestration. The amendment also introduces a new category of forests namely production forest. Production forest is the area of forest designated primarily for production of wood, fiber, bio-energy and/or non-wood forest products, medicinal plants or any forest species to increase production in the country for a specified period. This will increase commercial plantations, mono cultivations that will further lead to commercialization of forests. Such focus and initiatives will hasten the destruction of forest and the loss of biodiversity and the livelihood of communities on their forest land, which will defeat the very objective of the act. The draft National Forest Policy 2018 tends to facilitate the corporate capture of forests, for increase of plantations, production of quality timber and facilitating forest-industry interface. The new Forest policy of 2018 will further legitimize the corporate transfer with market based false climate change solution like REDD+, allowing private sector management of forest land, allowing industrial plantation etc.
There is focus on promoting forest as solution for climate change and to meet India’s international obligations and commitments on climate change. The objective of the mission is to increase green cover to the extent of 5 million hectares (mha) and improve quality of existing green cover on another 5 million hectares, improve eco-system services like carbon sequestration, hydrological services and biodiversity and provisioning services like fuel, fodder, and timber and non-timber forest produces. Such targets for climate change will only reinforce a market oriented model of climate change solutions with significant focus on restriction of community rights and access to forest.
The proposed taxing will affect the livelihood and survival of indigenous peoples, further impoverishing them. The legislation also proposes a forest development cess of up to 10% of the assessed value of mining products removed from forests, and water used for irrigation or in industries. This amount would be deposited in a special fund and used “exclusively for reforestation; forest protection and other ancillary purposes connected with tree planting, forest development and conservation. The CAMPA fund for forest diversion through Forest Clearance for non-forest activities like construction of hydropower projects, like Mapithel Dam, has long being a controversy matter in India.
Indigenous peoples rights over their land and forest and their intrinsic survival dependence for physical and spiritual survival is completely undermined in the new Act that attempts to segregate indigenous peoples from their forest. The Government of India should withdraw the proposed New Act, the India Forest Act, 2019, which will entail further threats to the livelihood and survival of indigenous peoples of Manipur and across India’s North East States, as peoples with rights and dignity living and depending on their forest. The draft forest policy, 2018 of India needs to be withdrawn as well for its overt intent to commercialize forest, which are intrinsic survival sources for indigenous peoples. The Draft Indian Forest, Act 2019 and the draft forest policy, 2018 constitutes a systematic pattern of dilution of laws, to remove any semblance of protection of community rights over forest and to legalize and corporatization of forest. The new policies on forest will also allow increased assault on indigenous peoples land and forest with unsustainable and destructive mega projects like extractive industries, hydropower projects, oil exploration etc in Manipur by undermining community rights over their forest. The Government should recognize indigenous peoples’ rights, livelihood dependence on their forest land and stop all forms of forced forest land alienation in Manipur and beyond.
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