Government Withdraws Controversial Amendments to Forest Rights Act

The decision comes just a few weeks before the Jharkhand assembly elections. The state has a sizeable scheduled tribe population.

New Delhi: The Union government on Friday withdrew certain controversial amendments to the Indian Forests Act 1927. The minister for environment, forests and climate change, Prakash Javadekar, said that the ‘zero draft’ – as the proposed bill was called – had created the ‘wrong impression’ that the government intended to do away with certain provisions of the Act which protect the rights of forest dwellers and tribal communities.

“It was a ‘zero draft’. It was mistakenly taken as a ‘government draft’ and circulated. Eleven states have drafted their own forest laws. This was just prepared by ministry officials to study how various forest laws can be put together in one draft and circulated. But now we have decided to withdraw the complete draft,” Javadekar said.

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The minister was accompanied by the minister for tribal affairs Arjun Munda while making the announcement. Both insisted that the government is committed to the protection of tribal rights.

The decision comes just a few weeks before the Jharkhand assembly elections. The state has a sizeable scheduled tribe population.

The proposed bill had been criticised for further empowering forest officials, who continue to enjoy significant discretion and powers under the existing act. It envisaged granting the forest bureaucracy powers to raid, arrest, search and seize property and even shoot to kill with a degree of immunity that is usually provided to other government officers.

“No forest-officer shall be arrested for any offence alleged to have been committed or purported to have been committed in discharge of his official duties, without causing out an inquiry by an authority to be notified by the State Government for the purpose,” a portion of the bill read.

It also sought to ‘dissuade’ political mobilisation. “To dissuade political executives to incite masses against the provisions of the Act. Many State Governments have withdrawn cases registered under the Indian Forest Act 1927 to draw political mileages. Such action has to curbed with heavy hand, because the results are disastrous. Porosity is the root cause of destruction of prime forest areas.”

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Tribal rights groups have welcome the government’s intent but have said that it needs to issue a formal written notification to the effect. They have also termed Javadekar’s comments on the bill as ‘misleading’.

“We note that the minister’s statement is deeply misleading in several respects. The minister claimed that the proposed amendments were merely a ‘draft’ that resulted from a ‘study’, but in fact the letter sent to state governments on March 7 clearly stated that this was a proposal for legislation and the minister himself stated the same in this reply to a starred question in parliament on June 28. In the same reply he also misled parliament by stating that the draft would be ‘in addition; to the rights recognised by the Forest Rights Act, though in fact it would have negated those rights,” the Campaign for Survival and Dignity said in a statement.