The Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change, Government of India, has issued new forest policy guidelines to privatise nearly 40 per cent of open forest lands in the country, undermining the forest rights of adivasis. This move is an attempt to encroach upon the forest rights of 300 million forest-dependent communities in the country.
First of all, the forest policy guidelines are in total violation of Forest Rights Recognition Act (FRA), 2006, which was enacted to nullify historic injustice done to adivasis and other traditional forest dwellers. Contradicting the preamble of the FRA itself, the new forest guidelines of the ruling NDA government allege the forest-dependent communities are responsible for unsustainable exploitation of natural forests which resulted in land degradation.
In fact, the allegation is a move to pave the way to mercantile interests of multinational companies in forest management. This is evident from the guidelines which affirm that there is need to involve private companies to invest in afforestation projects to improve the quality of degraded forest lands.
However, these executive forest guidelines cannot override the statutory provisions of FRA which ensure the rights of adivasis communities, including right to protect, regenerate or conserve or manage community forest resources. A study report indicates that on an average 135 hectares of forest land is being diverted every single day for various developmental projects.
Thus, the State itself, not adivasis, is responsible for denudation of forest land cover by diverting the huge chunk of forest lands for the purpose of mining or large dams etc. A preliminary assessment on ensuring community forest rights shows that a minimum 40 million of hectares of forest has clear evidence of being under community use and ownership which can be immediately recognised as community forest resources under the FRA.
The State cannot enter into agreements with private industries through anti-tribal forest guidelines, pending disposal of lakhs of forest land claims before various statutory committees constituted under the FRA. Further, 85-90 per cent of the leased out area will be made available for the industrial use while the earmarked 10-15 per cent of land for the development of local communities.
This policy prescription must be considered as a systematic attempt to alienate adivasis and other traditional forest dwellers from the survival resources of forests. This provision is in conflict with the provision of FRA which ensures the right to access and disposal of non timber forests products under community forest rights of adivasis under the FRA.
The colonial mindset of successive national governments towards forests and the forest dependent communities is further reinforced by the present guidelines. The Gram Sabha is the adjudicating body under the FRA to determine the individual and the community forest land rights of claimants. The State cannot issue guidelines arbitrarily without the consent of the Gram Sabhas.
The Panchayats Extension to Scheduled Areas Act (PESA), 1996, also empower the Gram Sabha with ownership over minor forest produce and also manage the community forest resources. Thus issuing guidelines to open up forest lands to industries are in clear abrogation of the provisions of PESA Act also. The government is viewing the natural forests as the main source of revenue generation and industrial needs.
It may be worth noting here that the guidelines enabling the State to enter into an agreement with the companies in relation to the forest lands particularly in the States of Telangana and Andhra Pradesh are also in violation of the tribal-protective Land Transfer Regulations 1 of 70 which prohibit the transfer of lands not only between the tribals and the non-tribals but also among the non-tribals in the Schedule V Areas.
The Supreme Court of India in Samata Vs State of Andhra Pradesh held that the ‘transfer’ of lands by the State in favor of a person other than the member of Scheduled Tribe stands prohibited. The word ‘transfer’ also includes ‘lease’ or any other dealing with the immovable property situated in the Schedule V Areas.
Therefore, the guidelines permitting the lease agreements between the forest department and companies owned by non-tribals in relation to the forest lands in the Schedule V Areas of Telangana and Andhra Pradesh are hit by the provisions of Land Transfer Regulations 1 of 70. In view of this situation there is an urgent need to oppose the malicious interests manifested in the new forest guidelines and demand for its immediate withdrawal.
The Ministry of Environment and Forests, and Climate Change, Government of India, also should do a re-think on the new forest guidelines in order to reduce the prevailing tensions among the adivasis in the tribal country. (Author is an advocate and a researcher. He can be contacted at [email protected])
By Dr Palla Trinadha Rao