Sunday, October 1, 2023

Taking away rights

Before enactment of any critical bill with a subject such as the amendments proposed in the Forest (Conservation) Amendment Bill, it was only expected that a serious and enlightened discussion sans politics should have taken place before it was given the nod by both houses of parliament . However, the proposed Forest (Conservation) Amendment Bill 2023 went past both houses of parliament without much ado owing to chaos that prevailed as in previous sessions. Several legal minds who are in the know about forest acts in India, have maintained that the FCA 2023 will negate the impact of a landmark Supreme Court order of 1996 – known as the Godavarman judgment – that has since been the touchstone of forest conservation in the country. The judgment has been the basis of hundreds of court orders across the country to extend a protective shield to large tract of “deemed forest” or natural forests, including Aravalis in the National Capital Region (NCR), over the past 27 years. The experts believe that the amended Forest Conservation Act 2023 contradicts The Scheduled Tribes and Other Traditional Forest Dwellers (Recognition of Forest Rights) Act, 2006 and The Panchayats (Extension to The Scheduled Areas) Act, 1996 by not defining strategic linear projects or addressing the requirement for people’s consent to access certain lands. One of the most serious issue that arise from the Forest(Conservation)Amendment Act 2023 was the concern by environmental activists that it will erase the rights of indigenous communities living on India’s borders, such as Nagaland, Mizoram, Arunachal Pradesh and Manipur. If the bill comes into effect, it exempts many activities from requiring forest clearances, including those in forest lands of up to 0.10 hectares alongside roads and rail lines and construction of defence-related or public utility projects. Worse still, the amended Act will also exempt forest lands within 100 kilometres from the international border / Line of Control / Line of Actual Control for strategic linear projects. That 100-km range from the international border with Myanmar easily covers entire Nagaland including other north eastern states. The amended forest act has come under scrutiny of various tribe organisations including political non-NDA parties in Nagaland. These organisations have expressed apprehension that the amended Act will come into direct conflict with Article 371A with regard to ownership of land and its resources in Nagaland and all other tribal states which also enjoy protective laws under 371. The reason why the Centre has determined that the amended forest Act should be passed through brute majority enjoyed by the ruling party alliance appears to fit with the speculations for mining minerals. Though speculative, the fact is that the Act empowers the Centre to decide on using lands belonging to communities raises deep suspicions. The Act in particular has been received with strong objections from various tribe organisations and non-NDA political parties in Nagaland who have put the onus on the NDPP-BJP led oppositionless government to pass a resolution in the house to protect the status of ownership of land in consonance with Article 371A.Interestingly some of the organisations stand opposed to the state government’s scheme to promote and subsidize palm oil in Nagaland in lieu of central policy. Both the forest act and palm oil scheme are linked to a business corporate and that is why no amount of objection can change what has been decided.


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