Duty on minor produce will violate forest rights: Experts

The first draft to amend Indian Forest Act proposes to impose duty on minor produce that several tribals depend on for livelihood

By Ishan Kukreti
Published: Wednesday 20 March 2019
Minor forest produce
Photo: Getty Images Photo: Getty Images

The Ministry of Environment, Forest & Climate Change (MoEF&CC) in the first draft to amend the Indian Forest Act, 1927 (IFA) has proposed imposing duty on not just timber but also other forest produce. But, experts say, this is a violation of the forest dwellers’ rights.

“The central government and state government in their respective jurisdiction may levy a duty in such manner, at such places and at such rates as it may declare by notification in the official gazette on all timber or other forest produce,” according to the draft.

The amendment defines forest produce as products found in forest like “timber, sawnwood, charcoal, sandalwood, red sanders wood, caoutchouc, catechu, wood-oil, gum, resin, natural varnish, mahua flowers, mahua seeds, kuth, salseed, tendu leaves, wild animals, wildlife as defined under the Wildlife (Protection) Act, 1972”.

However, experts say these provisions violate the rights given to forest dwelling communities under the Scheduled Tribes and Other Traditional Forest Dwellers (Recognition of Forest Rights) Act, 2006 (FRA).

They say many of the products — bamboo, brush wood, stumps, cane, tussar, cocoons, honey, wax, lac, tendu or kendu leaves, medicinal plants and herbs, roots, tubers etc –defined as forest produce in the amendments are classified as minor forest produce (MFP) under FRA.

The Act gives the forest dwelling communities rights over these MFPs, and gives gram sabhas the authority to issue transit permit for transporting them outside the forest.

“The provisions of the amendment are in violation of the power vested with the gram sabha under FRA and The Provisions of the Panchayats (Extension to Scheduled Areas) Act, 1996. This clearly is an attempt to redefine the IFA cunningly by giving supreme power to the forest department,” says Chitta Ranjan Pani, an Odisha-based researcher working on livelihood issues of tribal communities.

Moreover, the amendments also propose a forest development cess, over and above the tax imposed on the forest produce.

“Notwithstanding anything contained in this Act or the provisions of any other Act, the state government may levy a cess, hereinafter called forest development cess, at a rate not exceeding 10 per cent of the value assessed of the mining products removed from the forests and water used for irrigation or in industries,” reads the draft.

This cess will be kept in a special fund which will be used exclusively for reforestation, forest protection and other ancillary purposes.

Tribal communities depend on MFP for food, fodder, shelter, medicines and cash income. It provides them critical subsistence during lean seasons, particularly for primitive tribal groups such as hunter, gatherers, and the landless. In fact, according to Planning Commission data, tribals derive 20-40 per cent of their annual income from MFP.

 “This draft points towards an autocratic management of forest rather than making forest governance more democratic, as envisioned by FRA to undo the historical injustice meted out to the forest dwelling communities,” says Pani.

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