The Draft Indian Forest Act- Peoples perspective and factual analysis

Dr VK Bahuguna

The Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change after several years hiccups has been able to circulate or comments a fresh draft Act to replace the Indian Forest Act 1927 in order to reflect the needs and aspirations of country's changed priority in the midst of several challenges being faced in the field of Forest and Environmental conservation. Soon after the takeover of the East India Company in India after the 1857's first war of independence the British crown government set the agenda for creating infrastructure for the administration. It realized the potential of scientific management of the vast Indian forests for helping the colonial administration in procuring timber for revenue, Indian Railways and other needs; it established the Indian Forest Department under a trained German forester Dietrich Brandish in 1864. Brandish had a vision for conserving forest catchments as protector of Indian agriculture and soil and moisture conservation as well. It must however, be remembered that Brandish laid down a policy in 1884 subordinating forestry to agriculture so that the soil and moisture is conserved to bail out the people from repeated famines. The first Act was drafted in 1878 and with the formal opening of a forest college at Dehradun, forestry as a full-fledged science started taking roots in India. To mirror the changes a new Forest act was enacted in 1927 and is the law enforcing book on forests in India today ( many states enacted their own act exactly on the pattern of this act)  until the Forest Conservation Act 1980, Wildlife Protection Act 1972 and the Forest Rights act 2006 were enacted.

In the early nineties the central government felt that a new Act needed to be enacted considering the implementation of Joint Forest Management (JFM) and increasing plundering of forests by the timber mafias as the punitive measures were not sufficient and archaic. This writer was the Member of two Committees entrusted with the job to revise the Act but we found after preparing a voluminous draft that the way 1927 Act has been drafted it will be difficult to replace its language succinctly and with the brevity with which it subsumed the ethos of conservation and ultimately it was decided to propose only increase of fine, compensation and duration of imprisonment for the forest offences by amending these provisions in the Act.

The dimensions of forest conservation for the last 15 years have changed a lot primarily due to the shifting of focus from timber oriented forestry to people centric forest management and also enactment of Forest Rights Act 2006 and emerging challenges being faced from the well-armed powerful forest offenders and not to mention the climate change threat looming large. Now let us discuss the silent features of this new draft Act.

Before we discuss the new Act we must accept that the Indian Forest Act was one of the most people friendly Act from amongst all the colonial Acts. It had the provision under section 28 to create village forests which is akin to the present day JFM and Community Forestry Concept and also under section 80 the government can manage jointly any forest or waste land with anybody. This Act laid emphasis on consolidation of forests primarily but had an open window for public involvement on govt forest and govt willingness to jointly manage any private forest with anyone who is willing. The new Act improves on this expanding the chapter on village forests and giving them legal back up a very important need in present day's scenario.

Now this new Draft Act had made provisions to have smooth sailing with the provisions of Forest Rights Act and especially for the people who are dependent on the forests as also for their capacity building. The section 2 clearly defines the forest land and produce, community, owner, local body, Non-Timber Forest Produces, shifting cultivation etc. It will help people to exempt from the transit regulatory regime their defined forest produce including horticulture produce. The section 4 will help quick settlement of rights on forests by the settlement officer. The new Act makes it explicitly clear under section 5 that except under Forest Rights Act 2006 no pattas can be given to any one and acknowledges harmony between forest management and tribal life  and also makes provision for adequate compensation for the tribal land. The role of Gram Sabhas has been codified and makes provisions for other stakeholders like people cooperatives/bodies and tribal and other Ministry officials to be included in the holistic manner in the forest management. One of the important feature in the new Act is under section 22(A) for recognizing a procedure for recording individual and community rights a very progressive laudable venture.

The new Act deals with the emerging challenges from timber mafias and from other anti-social elements and rightfully empowers the forest and other law enforcing officers to deal with such forces. It is a discerning fact that India tops the list of the world in losing the forest officials to forest crime syndicate according to a world study and these provisions needed to be complimented with enhancing the infrastructure for the forest personnel at par with police.

However, in India there is large number of phoney foresters and self-proclaimed tribal well-wishers emerging with assistance from vested interests and foreign hands to derail any good reforms in the forestry sector and they have started a campaign to criticize the provision of empowering field forest officers in the new draft Act. By raking up the bogey of forest bureaucracy they want to confuse the policy makers and others. We need stringent provisions to deal with organized criminal activities along with a people centric approach in governance. India cannot meet the climate change and other international commitments and enhancing the tree cover without a viable and strong legal back up.

This country is water stressed today and unless the forests in the catchments and elsewhere are saved the situation is going to turn worse. According to Central Ground Water Board's statistics 70 percentages of the districts are suffering from shortage of ground water and situation is turning critically acute year after year. Many rivers and their tributaries are drying and many villages and cities are facing shortage of drinking water today already water battles are going on at many places. It is any body's guess to imagine what will happen to our agriculture in the next few years if steps are not taken to recharge the aquifers and protect the forest and manage the rural landscape in a holistic manner based on watershed basis and to tackle climate change in a war footing. The social media and intellectuals should realize that the good work of a large number of unsung foresters in nation building should be recognized and in fact expanded with the provisions of this new Act for catering to the livelihoods of villagers situated in fringe forests.

 The state governments must come up with positive suggestions on the draft Act early without getting influenced by these naysayers and the Ministry should wrap it up timely as it is the best they could do to accommodate aspirations of forest dependent people.

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