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National Convention on Forest Rights Condemns Anti-Democratic, Anti-People Policies and Calls for Protests

`At a two day national convention on forest rights held in Delhi on May 14th and 15th, more than a hundred delegates from twelve states condemned the Central and State governments’ failure to implement the Forest Rights Act, as well as the Central government’s recent policies on forests. They described these steps as an attack on the rights of tribals and forest dwellers, the environment, and the basic values of democracy and our Constitution. The Convention resolved that on two dates, June 5th and August 9th, protests will be held in blocks and districts across the country against these policies. The protests will call for the government to take four key steps: recognise the individual forest rights of all forest dwellers and the community forest rights of all villages in forest areas; withdraw or amend all recently passed environment and forest laws that violate forest rights; direct action against forest officials who violate forest rights and/or decisions of gram sabhas (village assemblies) under the Forest Rights Act; and ensure that any project using forest land is only approved after the consent of affected villages’ gram sabhas and made subject to their plans for managing the forests, as required by the law. The Convention was joined by senior opposition leaders Brinda Karat (Politbureau member, CPI(M)), Jawahar Sircar (Member of Parliament, TMC, Rajya Sabha) and Nabakumar Sarania (Member of Parliament, Independent, Lok Sabha).

The Forest Rights Act was passed in 2006 in order, as the law stated, to correct the “historical injustice” done to the tribal and forest dwelling communities of the country by the colonial rulers when they seized India’s forests for their use. In addition to providing for recognition of the individual rights of forest dwellers over the forest land and resources they use, the law also provided for the right of forest dwelling communities to protect and manage their forests. Delegates to the Convention said, however, that 17 years after the law was passed, most forest dwellers in the country have not received recognition of their individual rights, and the vast majority of forest dwellers’ villages have not received recognition of their rights over their community forests either. Meanwhile, the Central government has brought in a series of laws and policies that directly undermine forest rights. These include the 2016 Compensatory Afforestation Fund Act; the 2022 amendment to the Forest Conservation Rules, in which the Central government sought to wash its hands of any responsibility for respecting forest rights when handing over forest land for projects; and the now proposed 2023 amendments to the Forest Conservation Act. Delegates also stressed that these changes undermine democracy and violate the values of the Constitution.

In addition to the decision to call for protests, the Convention also decided that all the attending states will send representations to the Joint Parliamentary Committee constituted to review the proposed amendments to the Forest (Conservation) Act.