Also read about how the NDA is trying to bring the British Raj back in India’s forests.
Almost a decade after it was passed, the BJP-led NDA government has set out to finish off whatever is left of the Forest Rights Act. Having lost on the Land Acquisition Act, this time it’s a backdoor strategy.
What is happening? A bureaucrat – corporate land grab of almost a quarter of the country’s land area, snatching the livelihood rights of more than 100 million Indians. This from a government who claims to believe in “minimum government.”
The Forest Rights Act empowers forest dwelling communities to manage and protect forests. Neither the UPA nor the NDA liked this very much, but it stands as the law, upheld by the Supreme Court.
Now Central guidelines from the Environment Ministry state that private companies can undertake commercial plantations on “degraded” forest land, up to 40% of the country’s forest land area. By implication, the existing forest and vegetation will be replaced by monocultural plantations, with the rights of forest dwellers restricted to “10-15%” of the leased patches. Their legal rights over the remaining 90% of the leased forests will be simply deleted by a stroke of the Environment Ministry’s pen; from empowered owners and managers as per the law, the BJP goverment wants to reduce them to beggars, dependent on whatever crumbs the private company may throw at them.
The State “village forest rules” in Maharashtra and Madhya Pradesh also ignore the right of forest dwellers to manage and protect their forests. All of this comes after the repeated and blatantly illegal hand over of forest land to private companies by the Environment Ministry.
This at a time when a study has shown that the Central and State governments combined have not even recognised one percent of the forest area over which people have rights; the true area is estimated to cover more than half of the country’s forests.
Both the Central and the State guidelines directly attack the ownership rights of forest dwellers over non-timber (or ‘minor’) forest produce. In both cases, private companies and contractors are to get the main right to forest produce (whether bamboo, timber, or non-timber forest produce) through MoUs signed with forest officials and their local committees (which are presided over by forest guards). Non timber forest produce is the single largest source of cash income (other than migrant labour) in most forest dwelling communities.
Meanwhile, the Modi government has also made much of its decision to ask miners to pay a percentage of their royalties – reduced by two thirds from what the law permits – and that too into a district mineral fund, controlled by the Collector. Once again, bureaucrat raj is equated with development and welfare. Nothing unusual for this government, which makes the District Collector the centre of every policy while reducing accountability wherever possible.
The final irony is that corporates will never actually get all these resources they are being promised. The Central guidelines are self contradictory – they say that the allotment of plots must “safeguard forest rights”, while mandating that rights should be violated; they provide 10-15% of the land for local communities and then talk of how they should be benefited from afforestation. All of this will ensure that implementation of these schemes will be mired in confusion and violence. Meanwhile, all of the schemes are blatantly illegal, as the Centre’s own Tribal Ministry has been feebly (and ineffectively) pointing out.
Finally, whatever sleight of hand they may wreak with the law, people will fight back. Already, ten political parties’ MPs have come together to oppose these blatant illegalities.. Is the BJP headed for one more land acquisition fiasco?
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