Explained: Why amendments to the Indian Forest Act have met with protests

A protest march in Thane, Maharashtra, earlier this year. (Express Photo: Deepak Joshi)

Two days before the Supreme Court hearing on a writ petition regarding the Constitutional validity of the Forest Rights Act, tribal communities across India are set to hold demonstrations Monday in at least 15 states. Their demands are two-pronged that the proposed amendments to the Indian Forest Act, 1927, be shelved, and that state governments and the Centre present a strong defence of the FRA at Wednesday s hearing in the apex court.

The demonstrations are being held under the umbrella of the Bhumi Adhikar Andolan, which held a two-day consultation in New Delhi on the subject earlier this month, attended by over 200 representatives from tribal communities. In Maharashtra, the Shoshit Jan Andolan is holding protests in Dahanu (Palghar district) and in Alibag and Karjat (Raigad district). Taluka-level protests are also planned in Nashik.

What are the proposed amendments to the Indian Forest Act?

The Centre has sent to the states a draft bill amending the IFA, for consultation.

Maharashtra saw the first such consultation held last week with the tribal development department and activists on forest conservation and tribal rights attending. Many, including representatives of the RSS constituent Vanvasi Kalyan Ashram, urged for the amendments to be entirely shelved, on the grounds that they seek to reestablish the forest department s stranglehold over forest resources, which are now accessible to tribals and forest-dwellers owing to implementation of the FRA, Biological Diversity Act and Panchayats (Extension to Scheduled Areas) Act.

Protest by Kashtakari Sanghatna at Dahanu, Palghar district, Maharashtra.

Across India, activists for tribal rights have said the proposed IFA amendments will pest tribals and other forest-dwelling communities of their rights over forest land and resources. Under the amendments, among other things, state governments can take away tribal/forest dwellers rights over forest resources if it believes forest conservation objectives are not being met there. While compensation will be offered, the issue of livelihood is one of concern.

Other significant amendments proposed are giving greater policing powers to the forest department including through the use of firearms, a veto power to the forest department to override the FRA including applying village forests to manage forest resources instead of the gram sabhas as envisioned by the FRA. Also, forest lands may be opened for commercial exploitation wherever governments think fit.

What is the SC case regarding the Forest Rights Act?

On February 13 this year, the Supreme Court ordered the eviction of lakhs of tribals and other traditional forest dwellers whose claims under the (Scheduled Tribes and Other Traditional Forest Dwellers (Recognition of Forest Rights) Act, 2006, had been rejected following a three-tier process. The eviction was later stayed temporarily by an order on February 28, giving state governments time to file affidavits on whether due process under the law was followed before claims were rejected.

Activists for tribal rights have said the proposed IFA amendments will pest tribals and other forest-dwelling communities of their rights over forest land and resources.

The case will come up for hearing on Wednesday, July 24, when the Centre and states are expected to file affidavits regarding the implementation of the FRA. Others including researchers and farmer groups are expected to intervene in the litigation too. The Citizens for Justice and Peace is to file an intervention plea in the Supreme Court, along with the All India Union of Forest Working People, on behalf of Apasi women leaders.

Besides the demonstrations scheduled for July 22, plans are also afoot for a large rally in New Delhi in November, when Parliament is in session.

Unconnected from the IFA amendments being proposed, the February 13 order of the SC stayed temporarily, not withdrawn significantly dilutes the FRA in seeing rejection of claims as requiring eviction. Some states already have instances where this order of evicting those whose claims were rejected has been interpreted as the law.

As a result, across India, there is a real fear of evictions being undertaken by the forest department.