Environment Ministry's New Amendment to the Indian Forest Act
New proposed IFA amendment is a sham, will cause greater harm to forest dwellers
Yesterday, in the Rajya Sabha, the Ministry of Environment and Forests tabled an amendment to the Indian Forest Act. The new amendment purports to be people-friendly, but it's actually the opposite. As we had commented when the Bill was approved by Cabinet last year, this amendment will:
Make it easier for forest officials to extract bribes. The Bill increases the fine amount for which "compounding" (i.e. closing the case when the fine is paid, without a court trial) is possible. This looks like a good idea, until one recognises that it will simply mean that even more cases will be filed in order to extract bribes in exchange for compounding. It's easier, after all, to harass someone if you can get rid of the case easily, rather than face a long court procedure. The only way to reduce harassment by forest officials is to amend the Indian Forest Act so that actions that are now legal rights - like collection of minor forest produce, fuel wood and grazing in forest areas - are no longer treated as offences under the Forest Act. This will take away foresters power to file cases against forest dwellers for exercising their legal rights. But the Environment Ministry seems to have no intention of doing this.
Make a mockery out of the powers of the gram sabha (village assembly). Under the new amendment, when a forest official decides to compound an offence, he or she will consult the gram sabha. In other words, not when booking someone under an offence, but when deciding whether to fine them (with the possibility of the new, higher fines) or to jail them. Either way, the gram sabha has no power to do anything about the case itself. What is the purpose of such a sham "consultation"? Under the Forest Rights Act and the Panchayats (Extension to Scheduled Areas) Act, gram sabhas in forest and Scheduled Areas have powers to manage and protect forests. Rather than respect these powers, the MoEF is turning the issue upside down.
This kind of mala fide law making will persist until the forest authorities are forced to respect people's rights and the law. We call upon Parliament to reject this sham amendment and to require MoEF to genuinely bring the Indian Forest Act into conformity with democracy and people's rights.
Campaign for Survival and Dignity