Branches into batons

The Forest Bill can be used to preserve our verdant national wealth

By A K Mukherjee
Published: Tuesday 31 January 1995

-- (Credit: Rustam Vania)AS A professional forester, I feel that the draft Forest Bill is a highly progressive document. The Act, which will come out after the Bill is passed, will greatly improve upon the existing Indian Forest Act of 1927. It is a comprehensive piece of legislation dealing with the preservation of our national wealth.

Framed in 1927 by the British, the existing Act is obviously outdated. Under that dispensation, the states were in a commanding position because, despite being a central government Act, state governments were empowered to alter its provisions. This resulted in the Act having a different meaning in each state. There were no common lines along which the Centre could act. Approximately 4.3 million ha of forest land was lost between 1950 and 1980, because the states had converted large forest tracts into land for industrial use. Besides, the Union government had little say on the management of private forests.

The Union government came into the picture for the first time in 1980, using its powers mentioned in the Concurrent List of the Constitution. But the most important change came in 1988, when the Parliament cleared the National Forest Policy. Now, the proposed Act will become a major instrument in the hands of the Union government. One of the most crucial differences between this Bill and the Act of 1927, is the inclusion of a specific provision ensuring that the new Act cannot be changed by state governments.
Decision making Another extremely important provision in the proposed Act says that state governments cannot change the boundaries of Reserved or Protected Forests without prior permission from the Centre. Decisions about fresh delineations will now have to be taken by the Forest Settlement Officer (FSO), a state government employee, in the presence of a forest official not below the rank of a Ranger, an Indian Forest Service official. The FSO will have to give a written copy of his decision to the villagers and to the state government. The villagers can petition the district or High Courts against such decisions if they find them unfavourable. However, the state government will be empowered to review the rights and privileges of the villagers, for these have to be within the carrying capacity of the forest. There are similar provisions for village forests and private forests.

The Act tries to meet the needs of the local people who depend on forest resources for their survival. A separate section on "Village Forests" gives the villagers a lot of legal powers which were not there earlier. Thus, their rights have been safeguarded, and the Union government will have some say in the matter. The villagers will be given a set of duties and responsibilities worked out as a "village scheme", in consultation with them. This scheme will have to be approved by the forest department, and will include the power of legal distribution of usufruct which the "Village Development Committee" will decide and work on.

Previously, as the villagers had no legal rights for the management of their forest resources, uncontrolled felling had led to largescale degradation of forests, especially in the northeastern states.Provisions for private forests have been framed to check destruction caused by the owners. The main aim of this section is to guarantee that these forests are also managed in a scientific and sustainable manner. Previously, different states had varying legislations regarding private forests. Under the new Act, the mismanagement of any forest anywhere in the country will be a punishable offence.

But an individual genuinely involved in agroforestry can register himself as a treegrower, if he has a particular number of trees he looks after. He would then have to come to an agreement with the forest department, and if both parties are satisfied, the individual will be exempt from an export permit as well as a felling permit.

The government had realised that large tracts of land confiscated by it under the Land Ceiling Act were lying fallow as it lacked finances to undertake afforestation projects. Therefore, the Act proposes that individuals keen on afforestation of barren land be exempt from the Land Ceiling Act. These forests would be developed to meet industrial demands.

One major concerns of the draft Bill has been the preservation of trees in urban areas, something which had been completely ignored by India's previous lawmakers. Recently, the Delhi Development Authority (DDA) issued an order which said that permission has to be sought before a tree in the Delhi region can be cut. But that success came after a painfully long and tedious wrangling with procedural matters. Now the proposed Act provides for the setting up of an Urban Trees Authority, which will decide upon tree felling in urban areas.

The levying of duty on timber has also been proposed. Under the existing laws, the entire revenue obtained by the sale of forest produce goes to the revenue department, leaving nothing in the pockets of the forest department to fund the regeneration of the denuded area. But once the new Act is in place, a percentage of the sales proceeds will first go to the forest department.

The Act provides for the nationalisation of the timber trade. This process requires the state government to fix a minimum support price for timber. After the Act is approved, state governments will buy the entire produce of the state's forests at a reasonable price. Authorised dealers can then buy the material from the government -- a measure preventing the forcible undercutting of prices of forest produce. This step is intended to stop usufruct smuggling and illicit felling, and will only benefit the people and the government.

The Act gives the government and the forest department certain independent decisionmaking powers. The state government has to seek the Centre's permission before giving clearance for any forest-based industry. The proposed industrial unit will have to establish that the it will only procure timber from a sustainably managed forest.

The smallscale bricks and charcoal industry will also require the permission of the District Forest Officers (DFO) of the state government. Saw mills and sales depots will have to be registered and can be set up only after obtaining the state government's permission. Special provisions protect the farming of valuable products, like sandalwood.

The punitive measures included in the Act may be criticised for their apparent harshness, but here the guns are pointed at the organised underworld gangs, and not the poor man. The latter, in any case, is too scared of the law and rarely goes against it without provocation.

Previously, forest officials had the authority to confiscate goods being taken away without proper papers, but were not empowered to impound the vehicles used for this purpose. Naturally, the offending parties were never prosecuted. But under the new provisions, the vehicles can be impounded and the persons prosecuted. Appeals against such confiscations can be placed only in the sessions court and not the lower courts. Such a law had been passed earlier***(when?) by the Himachal Pradesh government, and about 100 trucks had been seized, affecting illegal trading seriously. Certain categories of offences have been made non-bailable. The fine has also been increased from Rs 3,000 to Rs 10,000. Even nebulous tipoffs can lead the DFO to issue a search warrant and raid the premises of suspected goods smuggled.

Speeding up legal decisions
The state can set up a Special Forest Offences Court where, cases beyond certain financial limits will be heard, speeding up legal decisions, which would otherwise take years.

The new Act also attempts to bring various government departments operating in a particular area, to provide assistance to the forest department to check the menace of illicit felling. These include the narcotics control bureaux and the police. It has also been stipulated that the forest department can have independent informants, to be paid for from its own funds.

To my mind, however, to make this Act a real success, the government should make use of our scientists and technocrats in the decision making process. Sustainable management of natural resources needs a scientific and interdisciplinary approach which should not be left in the hands of general administrative officers.

---In conversation with Ambika Sharma

A K Mukherjee is former inspector general, forests. He is presently vice-president of the National Afforestation and Ecodevelopment Board, and was a member of the committee which produced the Draft Forest Bill.

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