The Rajya Sabha is today slated to discuss the Compensatory Afforestation Fund Bill, 2016 – in the midst of a demand for amendments from the Opposition. This Bill concerns a giant sum of money – 42,000 crores – and 23% of the country’s land area, affecting the lives of millions of people. The NDA government’s attitude to these amendments will show whether the Modi government will continue to promote the absolute power of bureaucrats, even when it is clear that they are engaging in criminal and illegal activities.
Congress MP Jairam Ramesh has given notice of an amendment to the Bill, and the Left is also expected to move amendments. MPs of other parties have said they support the spirit of the amendments.
This bill concerns money with the CAMPA fund (see background note at the end). In its current form, the Bill hands over these giant sums of money to committees dominated entirely by State and Central forest officials. The principal amount can be spent on almost anything (see section 6 of the bill) but it is being sold as a tree planting exercise.
But after the Forest Rights Act, it is now a legally accepted fact that millions of people in India live in or around forests, depend on them for their livelihoods and have legal rights over them. This Bill states that forest officials can simply plant huge numbers of trees (or undertake other “forest management” projects) in natural landscapes – such as grasslands, natural open forests, grazing areas, common lands or people’s cultivated lands – without even checking if people have rights over them, leave alone consulting them about where they should be planted, what species should be planted, and what impact this will have on their lives.
Plantations have been one of the major sources of conflict in forest areas, as forest bureaucrats routinely use them as a way to get more people’s land under their control. For instance, in Odisha, a Juang tribal village was pushed to near starvation after it lost nearly all of its common lands to compensatory afforestation plantations.
The amendments being moved today, including that for which Mr. Ramesh gave notice yesterday (see below), say only that before spending the money, forest officials will have to obtain a certificate that the implementation of the Forest Rights Act is complete in the area and that the villages in question consent to the plantation. These are are the same conditions that are already applicable to diversion of forest lands for industrial projects – since the former can be as destructive as the latter. They also say that where people have management rights or ownership of forest produce under the FRA, they should be in charge of the planning (otherwise, what is the meaning of their management rights?) These amendments will add one small check to ensure that people have at least one forum where they can defend their rights.
All of this will also help address the rampant corruption in CAMPA funds. In 2013 the CAG found giant irregularities in spending of compensatory afforestation funds. After evaluating plantations done in 2008, the agency found that only 11% of plantations actually survived, and in many cases no plantation was actually done. Records were mostly incomplete, funds had been spent on activities not permitted under the Rules, and so on. The findings in CAG report have been corroborated by monitoring studies done by independent researchers as well as by state forest departments.
The question is – will the Modi government continue its systematic sabotage of gram sabha consent? Will it continue to incentivise private companies and bureaucrats to engage in criminal grabbing of forest land?
Today’s actions will tell.
Campaign for Survival and Dignity
BACKGROUND – WHAT IS CAMPA?
Under the Rules to the Forest (Conservation) Act, 1980, whenever any forest land is “diverted” to any non-forest use, an equal area (if revenue land) or double the area (if “degraded” forest land) must be planted with trees. The user agency seeking the diverted forest land has to provide the land / the funds to purchase the land and the funds to plant the trees. In 2002, during hearings in theGodavarman “forest” case, the Supreme Court observed that most of this money was either not being spent or was being spent on other things, meaning that very little afforestation was happening. Hence it set up an ‘ad hoc’ authority to control this money and also imposed an additional, much larger penalty amount for diversion of forest land, consisting of payment for what it called the “net present value” of the forest being lost (an amount that was arbitrarily fixed at certain figures). However, the government pointed out that the court could not direct how this money should be spent, since the constitution required that the expenditure of any fund must be authorised by an Act of Parliament. As a result, the money simply accumulated. In 2008, the Centre tried to bring a CAMPA bill (substantially similar to the present one), but it was unanimously rejected by the Standing Committee. The money continued to accumulate, reaching a now estimated 42,000 crores. The new Bill is an attempt to allow for expenditure of this money. But even though the 2008 Standing Committee report had itself highlighted the need to respect forest rights and ensure democratic accountability for the funds, this was ignored by the NDA government as well.
Full Text of Amendment Proposed by Mr. Jairam Ramesh (other parties also moving amendments)
On page 2, after line 36, insert the following:
6A. No expenditure of monies in the National or State Fund for any activity shall be undertaken unless the following conditions are satisfied:
(i) The informed consent with a 50% quorum of the gram sabhas of all villages within whose boundaries – including customary, traditional and revenue boundaries – the proposed scheme/project/activity falls, or whose members exercise individual or community rights in an area proposed for the project, or which are within five kilometers of the proposed activity, has been obtained, with such consent including a certification that the process of implementation of the Scheduled Tribes and Other Traditional Forest Dwellers (Recognition of Forest Rights) Act, 2006 is complete in the proposed project area as well as an explicit statement of consent to the specific activity proposed;
(ii) Any scheme/project/activity within the boundaries of an area over which rights of any forest dwellers have been recognised or are claimable under sections 3(1)(b), 3(1)(c), 3(1)(e) or 3(1)(i) of the Scheduled Tribes and Other Traditional Forest Dwellers (Recognition of Forest Rights) Act, 2006 shall only be undertaken subject to a plan prepared and passed, with a 50% quorum and including the species to be planted if any, by the gram sabha whose member(s) hold the said rights.
Provided that, for the purposes of this section, the terms “gram sabha” and “village” shall have the same definitions as those specified in sections 2(g) and 2(p) respectively of the Scheduled Tribes and Other Traditional Forest Dwellers (Recognition of Forest Rights) Act, 2006.