THE Communist Party of India (Marxist) has opposed the proposed amendment to the Indian Forest Act 1927, saying these are not in the interest of the forest dwellers. In a letter to Prakash Javadekar, Minister for Environment, Forest & Climate Change, senior Politburo Member Prakash Karat says In Parliament “ You have defended the amendments and sought to play down the extremely repressive measures proposed in the Act entirely ignoring and bulldozing the rights of tribal communities in particular. I feel it is therefore necessary to give you a more detailed critique of the amendments which may help to give a more correct picture to parliament .The Forest Act 1927 was the instrument through which the British colonialists established Government ownership over forests and declared tribal communities to be encroachers thus giving legal sanction to the burden of historical injustices against tribal communities. The 91 clauses in the amendments now proposed, including entirely new sections, go even beyond what the British dared to do, by militarizing forest conservation. The amendments criminalise every aspect of tribal life giving untrammelled powers to the forest bureaucracy to arrest without warrant and use arms to implement the law. Symbolic of this repressive approach is the inclusion of the Chief of Army Staff (s.89-(vii) ) as a member in the proposed National Forestry Board. Presumably the Chief of India’s army now has the time to discuss how to “protect” forests not borders. On the other side the role of the Gram Sabha, particularly in tribal inhabited areas so critical to management, conservation and preservation of forests and tribal rights has been erased altogether. The amendments are a blueprint for centralization, commercialization and criminalization. The amendments will not help to conserve forests as is its declared aim. On the contrary, the amendments extinguish existing rights of Tribals and other Traditional Forest Dwellers including those recognized in the Forest Rights Act, in the Wild Life Protection Act as amended in 2006, the Panchayat Extension to Scheduled Areas Act (PESAA), the Land Acquisition and Resettlement and Rehabilitation Act 2013 as well as the constitutional provisions in Schedule 5 and 6.They are ,therefore, in toto, an affront to the Constitution, to democracy and to the legal framework to protect tribal rights in particular and those of traditional forest dwelling communities in general. Further, your Ministry has no jurisdiction over the rights of Tribals for which the jurisdiction lies with the Ministry of Tribal Affairs. Yet through these amendments.”Karat alleges that The Ministry for Forest, Environment & Climate Change seeks to supersede all legislations related to tribal rights and make them subordinate to this proposed Act. This is totally unacceptable. (1)Centralization: (a) Erasing the role of Gram Sabha: It is highly objectionable that the theme that runs throughout the amendments is to equate Tribals with other communities in relation to their rights over the forest such as through the redefinition of the word ‘community” to deny the special status of Tribals in relation to forests. The amendments centralize power over decision making over forests and forests produce and all matters related to forests at all levels. The rights of the Gram Sabha are appropriated by the Forest bureaucracy, the State Government and the Central Government. In the entire set of amendments there is not a single amendment which recognizes the critical role of the Gram Sabha in forest conservation or which mandates the consent of the Gram Sabha in any decision pertaining to the forests. of an accused in custody to be permitted as evidence under s.64c. This is not permitted even in the most heinous crimes but it is introduced as an amendment here. Further any person who does not report or prevent such a crime is also liable to punishment under s. 79 and all their rights can be extinguished. Thus the entire tribal community in any particular area can lose all their rights under this section. A scenario that arises from all these amendments can be that the forest official locks up the suspect who is arrested without a warrant, puts him in the forest lockup which has all the necessary equipment, extracts a confession from the suspect, places it in the relevant court where it is admissible evidence through a summary trial devoid of all procedures granted by s 67. Not only does he lose all rights, but the entire community may also lose their rights. The penalties detailed in s78 are also high. For example offences which carried a one month sentence have been increased to one year and offenses which had a sentence of one year have been increased to three to five years. These amendments will force Tribals, in particular tribal women who are the main gatherers of forest produce, into extremely vulnerable positions and constitute an extreme injustice to the rights and dignity of Tribals and to the minimum democratic rights they are entitled to as citizens of India.(3) Commercialisation and privatisation of Forests: For all its claims of preserving and expanding forests and forest cover, the amendments include a new section (Ch IVA) of Production Forests which is nothing but commercialisation not conservation of forests. The State Government has the right under this chapter to declare a certain part of any forest, including reserved and protected forests as production forests without any consultation with the Gram Sabhas affected. Here land will be given out on lease to commercial interests to grow trees, raise plantations for commercial use, specifically timber and medicinal plants. It is well known that big companies have an interest in taking over forest land for growing commercially important herbal and other plants. This entire section of amendments is a gift to such interests. Further in these Production Forest areas the State Government can levy cess, taxes, duties and so on which will go directly to the State Government for development of forests. On the one hand you handover forests to private interests and on the other you take money in the name of developing conservation but without the participation of Tribals or their Gram Sabhas who have no right to decide how such funds are to be utilized.Ch 5, instead of takeover of private forests, actually gives recognition and rights to ownership of private forests. Both these aspects in the sections mentioned above expose the claims of the Ministry that the amendments are in the interests of conservation. There are many other amendments which are objectionable. Taken as a whole, the amendments cannot be accepted. We request you to withdraw the amendments. Instead it would be in the interests of forest conservation to bring the Forest Act 1927 in conformity with the FRA and other related laws that seek to redress the historical injustices faced by tribal communities, now being perpetrated in modern forms in the name of development on the one hand and in the name of conservation on the other, the veteran Leftist leader said.
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