Govt withdraws draft forest law that triggered protests

Esha Roy
Union Minister for Environment, Forest and Climate Change Prakash Javadekar and Union Minister for Tribal Affairs Arjun Munda address the media in Delhi on Friday. PTI

Ahead of the Assembly elections in Jharkhand, Union Minister for Environment, Forest and Climate Change, Prakash Javadekar on Friday announced the withdrawal of a draft of amendments to Indian Forest Act 2018. Javadekar, who was accompanied by Tribal Affairs Minister Arjun Munda, said the “draft’’ was simply an exercise by bureaucrats to “study the issue’’.

“There was an exercise by some officers, to create a study because 11 states have brought their own Acts. So what can be the common grounds...some officers and experts created a zero draft, which was not a government draft, but it was created because you have a practice of think tanks. So they circulated it to stakeholders. This was taken as a government document, therefore there was hue and cry due to misgivings. Impressions were given as if the government wants to amend the Forest Act and do away with the pro-tribal provisions,” he said.

Javadekar said that over the past three days, he and Munda met representatives of Vanvasi Kalyan Ashram — an RSS affiliate — and decided to “completely withdraw’’ the “so-called draft’’ so that there is “no doubt in anyone’s mind that this government is not against, or not taking away any rights of the tribals’’.

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Move comes ahead of election challenge

The Centre’s move comes ahead of polls in Jharkhand, which has an Scheduled Tribes population of 8,645,042 and where the ruling BJP faces a tough fight. The party is yet to announce its seat-sharing arrangement with AJSU, its oldest ally in the state and another ally LJP has announced that it will go it alone. On the other side, the Congress, JMM and RJD have forged an alliance and sealed the seat-sharing deal. Also, Jharkhand polls would be a crucial test of BJP after it could not perform in Haryana and Maharashtra as per expectations.

“The rights of the tribals will be protected fully and they will be the main stakeholder in forest development and their livelihood. Let me make it very clear that we are withdrawing, to do away with any misgiving. At this point of time, any thought of amending the Indian Forest Act is completely out of the question,’’ he said.

“Modi government is known as tribals’ friend and they too have always stood by us. They play a part in preservation, conservation and development of forests and are the important stakeholders of forest development,’’ the minister said.

Tribal Affairs Minister Munda said, “The draft of the Forest Act that had been circulated at the level of officers has been withdrawn and will not be discussed in the future. I welcome this move because there were a lot of misgivings which had been spreading.’’

Several proposals in the draft had triggered an uproar, with activists alleging that the proposed amendments seek to establish the forest department’s stranglehold over forest resources.

The amendment proposed a new category of forests — production forests, meaning forests with the specific objective of production of timber, pulp, pulpwood, firewood, non-timber forest produce, medicinal plants or any forest species to increase production in the country for a specified period. The draft also proposed more powers to forest officials.

The draft had been put on hold after protests broke out and activists and tribals alleged that tribals and forest dwellers would lose their rights if it was implemented.