Just weeks after facing massive protests, the BJP government at the Centre sent all States a proposal for a sweeping set of amendments to the Indian Forest Act. These amendments would give forest officials the power to shoot people without any liability (with the same legal protection as soldiers in disturbed areas under the Armed Forces (Special Powers) Act); allow forest officials to restrict or cancel legal rights and to relocate people against their will; presume that people they accuse of crimes are guilty if certain materials are claimed to be found on them (a provision similar to anti-terror laws); to hand over forests to private companies for afforestation, and to grab other forests in the name of “carbon sequestration”; and on and on.
If passed, these amendments will make forest officials de facto dictators, with more powers than any other government official (more powers, in fact, than those that are given to soldiers, who are at least legally required to hand over anyone they arrest to the normal police).
This is nothing short of a declaration of war in forest areas. Who then is the enemy?
Is it the country’s tribals and forest dwellers? Consider what some of the amendments say:
- Forest officials can use firearms to “secure forest produce” or for even more frivolous reasons; and if their firing is even “purported” to be done under the law, they cannot be prosecuted; this is the same provision as in the Armed Forces (Special Powers) Act (proposed new section 66(2))
- The legal rights of tribals and forest dwellers can simply be taken away by paying arbitrary cash payments and people can be forced to relocate (22A(2))
- Forest officials can inflict British-style collective punishment on all rights holders if they feel “fires are being caused willfully” (26(3))
- Forest officials can simply deny all rights – if they feel enough forest is “left over” – by declaring any area a “conservation reserve” (30(b))
- If one ‘participates’ in any of the sham participatory schemes under the Forest Department, one cannot claim legal rights (29(3))
The amendments also provide for “production” forests (34C), for ending shifting cultivation entirely (despite it being both more ecologically friendly and socially equitable), and so on.
The clear goal of these amendments is to turn India’s forests – almost a quarter of the country’s land area – into a police state where the interests of forest bureaucrats and private companies will reign supreme. As the Forest Rights Act itself says, these areas were seized by colonial and post-independence governments in a “historical injustice” against forest dwellers. Now this government wants to double down on that injustice. This is a wholesale attack on the rights of India’s twenty crore forest dwellers.
But just as the backdoor attempt to get the Forest Rights Act weakened in court failed, this attempt too will fail. Protests are continuing and will intensify. The struggle goes on.