Our responses to the main arguments in the court cases:
#1. The colonial authorities were fully sensitive to the needs of forest dwellers; the Indian Forest Act and its sucessor, the Wildlife Protection Act, provide adequate protections. The forest bureaucracy has correctly implemented the law. Therefore all forest dwellers are “encroachers.”
In reality, the Indian Forest Act and the Wild Life (Protection) Act entirely failed to protect the rights of forest dwellers. Moreover, even their limited provisions were rarely implemented. See “What is this Act about?” for more information.
#2. By recognising the rights of forest dwellers, the Act will encourage false claims of rights over forests and forest lands, leading to forest destruction. The current situation should remain.
In fact, it is the current system of forest law that is leading to forest destruction. By vesting enormous, unaccountable powers in a single government department, it encourages corruption and arbitrariness, whereby forests are sold to the highest bidder. As a result, more than five lakh hectares of forest land were destroyed between 2001 and 2006 alone by the government for various industrial and other projects. See “Myths and Facts” for more information.
#3. The gram sabha is the deciding body on rights under the Act, but the gram sabha is an unskilled open body in which all local residents can participate. Moreover the gram sabha will include interested parties. Recognition of rights should only be decided by officials.
This is linked to the previous point. The gram sabha is, in the first place, not the deciding body under the Act. Secondly, unlike the existing forest laws, this Act provides a three step procedure of screening bodies at each stage, where public appeals and questiosn can be heard. Existing forest laws vest all powers in the Forest Department. See the last section of “What is this Act about?” for more information.
#4. Being a later statute, this law is contrary to some parts of the Forest (Conservation) Act, the Wild Life (Protection) Act, and the Indian Forest Act, as well as some Supreme Court interim orders passed on the basis of those earlier Acts. But the existing system of forest management, the petitioners say, should be treated as part of the Constitution and cannot be changed.
Trying to place forest law beyond change is just a way of securing enormous powers for the forest bureaucracy. Simply because previous laws or court orders said something does not mean that Parliament cannot pass future laws. The real question is: should the fate of India’s forests be left in the hands of a few people to decide? If the answer is no, then the current system certainly needs change.
Some Other Things to Think About
- Why file so many coordinated, identical cases in so many High Courts? It seems the idea is to overwhelm those defending the Act, in the process wasting the time of both the courts and the government.
- Practically all international conservation organisations now acknowledge that centralised conservation does not work without respect for the rights of people. But none of these petitions even acknowledges the existence of forest communities. They do not refer to indigenous peoples, forest dwellers, or anybody else – all these millions of people are treated as if they are fictions.
- All of the petitions argue that the Forest Department should have all powers to “prevent encroachment” and to “settle rights”. Apparently this Department is a model of honesty, integrity and commitment to conservation.
- BNHS and its co-petitioners in the Supreme Court try to mix up denial of forest rights with land alienation of tribals’ private lands. The two issues have nothing to do with each other, as one involves theft of tribal lands by the state and the other by private parties. Confusing the issues is a cynical tactic, showing they care very little for what happens to tribals in both cases.
- The conservationists chose to go through a zamindar in Madurai, himself responsible for the clear felling of hundreds of hectares of natural forest. His petition makes no mention of this fact, and it doesn’t seem to bother those behind these cases.
- All the retired forest officers’ petitions claim that the Indian Forest Act was completely implemented – whereas their own department records say otherwise.
You can find more of our views in the open letters we sent to the organisations responsible for these cases.