Modi government's amended forest conservation law exposes India's forests to exploitation by private players.The government's efforts to do so, bypassing tribal rights, began at least eight years ago. @tapasya_umm and @nit_set reveal official docs and evidence.
In 2015, the environment ministry tried to rope in private players to green-up India's degraded forests.
After afforestation, these patches and the produce grown there could be sold off for profit.
This plan was condemned by the tribal ministry. Why?
Because environment ministry's plans violated legal rights of tribal and forest dwelling communities to collect non-timber forest produce in all forest lands.
It had planned that these communities would have access to only 10-15% of these patches to collect such produce.
The tribal ministry sent a strongly worded letter to the environment ministry.
It said that as per law, tribal communities' consent should be taken before involving private players in afforestation on forestlands. And that their rights over their forests shouldn't be violated.
So, this particular plan of the environment ministry did not pan out.
But it had many other tricks up its sleeves. And it kept at it.
Failing in 2015, between 2016 to 2018, the environment ministry found a new way to push for private involvement in forests.
It wanted to rewrite India's National Forest Policy, which is supposed to guide overall forest governance and the laws, rules etc.
Quite fair, the last one was written in 1988. Since then the world has changed. The pressures on forests have grown. India has legally accepted rights of tribals over their traditional forests (The Forest Rights Act, 2006).
But, the government drafted a new forest policy in 2016 diluting tribal rights. It came under fire. The ministry took it down.
In 2017, the government committed to the Parliament (which means to us, citizens) that India would have a new policy in place for sure.
In 2018 it put out yet another draft of a new policy. This draft yet again drew fire from several quarters. The policy focused on the productivity of forests (meaning, plantations and timber production by private businesses) rather than conservation and tribal rights.
The draft said that India was relying a lot on timber imports. To tackle this, more plantations needed to be raised with private help. This was in line with its 2015 attempt to involve private entities in plantations in forest and non-forest land.
While timber imports have seen a rising trend, India produces most of its timber from private plantations outside forests. Agro-forestry, as its called. But this was ignored. The focus was on helping private businesses access forestlands for plantations.
Again, the tribal ministry swung into action to defend tribal rights over private profit. It said that the draft favoured privatisation and commercialisation of forests overriding legal rights of tribal communities over these lands.
The environment ministry went silent on the National Forest Policy after this. Instead of framing a robust forest policy with tribal rights in mind, it stopped working towards its assurance to Parliament that it'd implement one.
To know more about how the union environment ministry skirted its responsibility and instead changed the law the way it desired, read the first part of #ForestsForProfit series here. By @tapasya_umm and @nit_set.
The environment ministry however kept at what it actually wanted to do.
In 2019, it framed guidelines to allow commercial plantations on degraded forests through a tripartite agreement between the local forest department, an NGO of repute and the private entity.
In 2022, it passed Rules that let it permit diversion of forests to private players without taking the consent of forest dwelling communities.
But the final blow was yet to come.The Forest (Conservation) Amendment Act, 2023.
In August this year, Centre amended the forest conservation law.
The changes to the law leave the door open for private planters to easily extract from forests.
In the next few tweets, we'll tell you how.
Firstly, the unamended law said that reafforestation and other activities ancillary to forest or wildlife conservation and management would be forest purposes. Therefore, these wouldn't require Centre's prior approval.
Cultivation of coffee, tea, oil-bearing plants or horticultural crops and medicinal plants was considered a non-forest purpose. This would require prior permission of the union government and fulfilling of all conditions under the law.
Secondly, under the unamended law any forest land leased to any private entity would require the prior approval of the Centre.
Be it for forest or non-forest purpose.
This approval comes with various terms which include paying a monetary amount and doing compensatory afforestation in lieu of the forest that'd be chopped down by the private entity.
What the amended forest conservation law has done:
First, it has included silviculture or plantations as forestry activity which wouldn't require Centre's approval and the rigorous conditions of conservation that come with it.
Plantations:1 Forest Conservation: 0
Second, it says that forests can be leased to private players based on the terms that the Centre will decide in the future.
The Centre now has given itself powers to give exemptions and devise the terms on how forests will be leased to corporates.
The government can decide how forests will be leased to private players for forest or conservation purpose. Which include timber and other plantations now.
The Centre can very well give wide-ranging relaxations to private plantations inside forests. Like it planned since 2015.
But, this was not all.
The new law has removed vast swathes of forests from the scope of the conservation law.
Closer to the capital, these include large parts of the Aravalli hills.
No points for guessing who benefits from this.
This law undermines a 1996 Supreme Court order which said all forests by dictionary meaning- irrespective of their ownership- should be protected by the forest conservation law.
It asked Centre and states to identify unrecognised forest patches and bring them under legal protection.
But, documents accessed reveal: Even 18 years after the Supreme Court order, most states had not properly identified such forest patches.
The Centre never put out consolidated data on what tracts of unrecorded forests were given the legal cover.
It instead went the other way.
It relegated its responsibility of protecting green patches.
In 2019, Centre said that states know better about their forests and should do the job on their own.
And, finally, in 2023, it amended the law- to give legal cover only to recorded forests.