Bold now, real test later

Government of Nagaland’s stance on UCC and Forest Conservation Act

Moa Jamir

In a distinct departure from the past, the Government of Nagaland (GoN) has taken a divergent stance on two contentious issues and has publicly voiced its concerns.  

The first issue is the Uniform Civil Code (UCC), for which the 22nd Law Commission of India (LCI) had invited suggestions and views from June 14-July 28.  With the mood on the ground unequivocal against any such proposed code, the GoN in its submission told the Commission that such proposal is ‘direct threat’ to customary laws, social and religious practices governing the Naga society and hence, cannot be ‘condoned and is outrightly resented.’

Giving a historical background that resulted in the Statehood of Nagaland with special constitutional safeguard, the GoN argued that such a Code “breaching” Article 371(A) of the Constitution of India “will certainly shake the very foundation of our relationship.” It also highlighted the ongoing Naga political issue and seek exemption from the proposed UCC.

The second issue is the Forest (Conservation) Amendment Bill, 2023, proposed by the Union Ministry of Forests, Environment, and Climate Change (MoFECC), which came closer becoming a law after it was cleared in the Lok Sabha on July 26.

Despite the fact that the Bill was passed, largely disregarding and overriding the suggestions and recommendations from various stakeholders, including the North-East States, who would be most affected by the amended Bill, the GoN officially expressed its concerns on the matter to the Joint Parliamentary Committee (JPC).

Of these, one was the deregulation of lands and forests falling within 100 kilometre of the international borders. The GoN noted that if 100 km exemption holds nearly all North-East States become excluded, given the peculiar shape of region except Assam. It further cited that Indo-Myanmar border is not as sensitive as Indo China or Indo Pakistan Border and the entire 100 km belt falls into the “Indo-Burma Biodiversity Hotspots-one of the riches areas in terms of gene pool diversity in the entire world.”

The MoFECC countered by maintaining that the proposed change would not be a generic exemption, but only for specific projects of strategic importance security to be identified by the Central Government. “The use of exemption will be need based i.e. may be used within 5 km or 10 km,” it added. It must be noted here that the exemptions sought are 100 km in aerial distance, which basically covers the whole of Nagaland.

Another concern shared by the GoN was that most forest areas in the State are not recorded as forests and as no land records are maintained and the Bill does not mention how privately and community owned areas would be treated. Accordingly, it called for a specific insertion keeping the private (naturally grown) forest areas out of the purview of the Act.

While it was clarified that that all forests, including unclassed forests, recorded in the record of Government, Forest Department local bodies, or authority will also attract the provisions of the Act, this is a huge room of ambiguity here. For instance, as per the Annual Administrative Report (2022-23) of the State’s Forests, Environment and Climate Change Department, as of 31.01.2022, while forests occupy an area of approximately 8421.74 Sq Km of the State's geographical area of 16,579 Sq Km, only 5.99% or 456.75 sq km was owned by Government, while 7621.07 sq km was Village Owned Forest. The rest (343.92 Sq Km) was designated as “Unclassed Forest.” 

The GoN stance on the UCC and Forest Conservation Act can be considered bold and commendable.  However, the real test will come when the bills are passed into law by the Parliament. While the GoN has limited role to play in the Parliament, it can make a significant impact in the State Legislative Assembly. It remains to be seen how the situation unfolds.

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