Controversial plan to amend forest act withdrawn

Proposal said to be too draconian to tribal people

Representative image. (PTI Photo)

The Union Environment Ministry on Friday withdrew a controversial proposal to amend the Indian Forest Act of 1927, which came under severe criticism for being too draconian to the people and tribes living in the forests.

The withdrawal, announced by the Union Environment Minister Prakash Javadekar and Tribal Affairs Minister Arjun Munda, happened days before BJP-ruled Jharkhand goes to polls. Scheduled tribes constitute more than a quarter of the eastern state’s population.

In March 2019, the forest policy division of the Union Environment and Forest Ministry circulated a 123-page secret note to the state governments detailing clause-by-clause comparison of the existing law and the new amendments proposed by the NDA government. Delhi BJP leader Harsh Vardhan, who currently holds the Health and Science and Technology portfolio, was the Union Environment Minister when the draft was released.

Soon, it attracted criticism from several quarters for vesting too much power in forest officials putting people living in forests at the receiving end.

For instance, the proposed amendment allows a forest officer to use firearms to deal with offences like encroachment of forest area, permitting cattle to trespass, setting fire, removal of forest produce and disturbing or harming animals.

Unlike the 1927 law, the proposed draft didn’t allow any criminal prosecution against any officer without prior sanction of state government. Another cause of concern was the power proposed to be given to the states to take away the legal rights of the tribes and forest dwellers by cash payments, forcing them to relocate.

Javadekar now distanced the political leadership from the draft claiming it was a “study” conducted by officials as 11 states had amended the old act as per their requirements.

Responding to a Lok Sabha query on June 28, 2019, he admitted that the proposal was indeed initiated by his ministry.

“There was a felt need to amend the Indian Forest Act, 1927 to keep it at par with development in last 90 years and with other State Acts... As a first step the first set of amendments have been proposed after a techno-legal analysis by a Core Drafting Committee comprising of technical and legal experts,” the minister had informed the Lok Sabha.

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