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Insidious Infringement of Forest Rights 

What is in the news?

1. The draft Indian Forest Act (IFA) 2019 has come in the aftermath of the Supreme Court’s order on the FRA (Forest Rights Act).

2. It proposes the introduction of a repressive policing regime by bestowing more powers on the forest bureaucracy for the governance of about 7,08,273 square kilometers of India’s forests.

3. It also incorporates provisions for commercializing forestry in accordance with the tenets of neo-liberal policy.

Which provisions of the draft law are regressive?

1. It has made major amendments by conceding a certain amount of veto power to forest officials overriding the provisions in the FRA.

2. It grants quasi-judicial powers to the forest bureaucracy.

3. It provides indemnity to forest officials for using firearms in order to prevent forest-related violations.

4. On a suspicion of committing a forest-related crime, as defined by the proposed act, the amendments empower forest officials to shoot, search, seize property and arrest citizens, while the burden of proving innocence would lie solely on the accused.

How does this draft go against the Constitutional provisions?

1. In consultation with the central government, the state governments have the powers to commute rights provided under it, if such rights would hamper conservation. This would be done by paying money or granting land instead of forest dwellers.

2. This would eventually lead to their eviction from forests violating the rights of forest-dependent communities.

3. If the rules framed by the center come into conflict with those of the states, then the former would prevail over the latter. This goes against the principles on which the federal relations between the center and the states are framed in the Constitution.

4. By proposing a system of village forests that bypasses the role of Gram Sabhas, these violate the principle of decentralized governance.

Who will benefit and who will suffer?

1. The provisions include measures to privatize forests as well as to introduce production forests. This would drastically alter the stakes of the actors; unsettle existing co-operative or joint arrangement for the use of forestlands and common property resources.

2. It would offer opportunities for private accumulation at the cost of impoverished and marginalized groups.

3. It would curtail the civil liberties of forest dwellers especially indigenous communities and Adivasis.

Where lies the solution?

1. Oppressive and unfair amendments to the forest laws should be repealed.

2. A pro-poor and democratic approach to forest governance should be adopted.