Forest law amendment threatens existence of van panchayats

The amendment says that the government can take away the management rights in case it feels that the community is not managing the forest sustainably

By Ishan Kukreti
Published: Wednesday 05 June 2019
Forest law amendment threatens existence of van panchayats. Photo: Getty Images

The amendment proposed to the Indian Forest Act (IFA), 1927, will severely curtail power and erode autonomy of van panchayats of Uttarakhand, experts said.

The amendment, drafted by the Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change (MoEF&CC) earlier in 2019, aims to club the van panchayats or village forest councils under the category of “Village Forests”.

If enacted, the rights of van panchayats — that are legally recognised forms of forest governance system — would be taken over by the government.

Besides overriding other forest laws, especially the hard-fought Forest Rights Act (FRA), 2006 and displacing forest communities, the amendment also allows the forest department to use firearms to prevent offences. However, no forest officer can be prosecuted unless the state government approves and a case, once filed, cannot be withdrawn.

“The amendments gives lot of powers to the Forest Department like the right to shoot and freedom from trial in court. If this amendment becomes a law then people in a forested state like Uttarakhand will suffer a lot,” said Ishwar Joshi of Van Panchayat Sarpanch Sanghathan.   

“The fact that the amendment does not even use the word van panchayat shows that it does not respect the categories,” added Neema Pathak Broome of Kalpavriksh, a non-profit organisation working on environmental and social issues.  

The categories were created under public pressure to address the limiting nature of rights granted under the forest laws of that time.

Moreover, the amendment has the provision that says that in areas where van panchayats’ rights had been recognised, no new rights will be given, Broome said, noting “this is problematic as many van panchayats are small and people use the nearby forests for gathering forest produce”.

There are around 13,000 van panchayats in Uttarakhand. They are protesting against the amendment.

On June 2, sarpanch (head of van panchayat) from Almora, Pithoragarh, Champawat, Bageshwar and Chamoli protested against the amendment and its impact on the autonomy of van panchayats in Bageshwar. Earlier, on May 28, another protest was organised in the same place.

“The amendment says that the government can take away the management rights in case it feels that the community is not managing the forest sustainably. With this provision, the government can take away the van panchayat forest any time,” said Tarun Joshi, a Forest Rights Act expert in the state.

He added that the amendment also give government the right to notify any forest area as Production Forest.

"The van panchayats represent one of the largest and most diverse experiments in devolved common property management ever developed in collaboration with the State,” according to a paper titled Community Forest Management in India: The Van Panchayats Of Uttranchal, presented at the World Forestry Congress, 2003 in Canada.

The paper added that the panchayats “form one of the earliest examples anywhere in the world of decentralised resource management through formal state community partnerships”.

Based on the inputs of a core committee constituted by the MoEF&CC, the ministry finalised the first draft of the comprehensive amendments to the IFA. The 123-page draft provides definitions to important terms that were missing from the law.

On March 7, 2019 Inspector General of Forests (Forest Policy) Noyal Thomas sent a letter to all states seeking their comments. Each state has to conduct consultations with all its stakeholders, including non-profits and civil society organisations and send the compiled feedback to the ministry by June 7.

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