Proposed amendment to Indian Forest Act would deepen injustice

It will change the fundamentals of community-driven forest governance that has taken roots in the past decades
Photo: Joyjeet Das
Photo: Joyjeet Das

The amendments proposed in the colonial-era Indian Forest Act, 1927 reflect the Centre’s attempt to grab natural resources owned by tribals for generations. As per the new draft, forest officials have been given the absolute authority to shoot tribals for "violation of laws". If a forest guard kills an "offender", the move will invite no prosecution by the state governments without first initiating an inquiry into the matter under an executive magistrate. Under the new amendment, forest departments can also declare any forest as reserved and alienate the forest-dwelling communities from their ancestral lands. This, I think, will have a terrible effect on the tribal population, who are struggling to make both ends meet.

In India, forest governance has turned significantly democratic in the past few years. Back in 1976, the National Commission on Agriculture recommended that the tribals should be chased out. On the basis of that, the Forest (Conservation) Act, 1980 came into being. However, through the National Forest Policy of 1988, the Centre recognised the symbiotic relationship between tribals and forests for the first time. This was then consolidated with the passage of the Forest Rights Act (FRA), 2006, when the Centre agreed that historical injustice had been committed and tried to undo the wrong. But with the proposed amendment, the injustice will be deeper.

During the 1980s and 1990s, at least the Centre showed some kind of sympathy for the tribals, as a result of which important legislations like FRA and the Panchayat (Extension to Scheduled Areas) Act, 1996, or PESA, were enacted. But in the past five years, I have noticed that the Indian state is dishonouring these laws by being harsh with tribals. If the proposed amendment comes into force, tribals will be defenceless while the forest department will be powerful. Earlier, foresters used to allege that tribals are Maoists in disguise. After the amendment is passed, the forest bureaucracy will term them as "encroachers" and shoot.

(The writer is a human rights activist based in Jharkhand)

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