The amending of the Forest Conservation (FC) Act, 1980, was in many ways controversial. From the initial posturing that sought to provide stronger protection to forests against non-forestry use to eventually renaming the Act and clipping its powers and scope.
Renaming the Act to Van (Sanrakshan Evam Samvardhan) Adhiniyam, evidently biased against the non-Hindi-speaking community, and the manner in which the Union government bulldozed its way to have the Amendment passed, with hardly any discussion, was in no way democratic.
Scrutinising the Amendment Bill was given to a Joint Parliamentary Committee (JPC), which was clearly packed with ruling Members of Parliament, contravening Parliamentary procedure that required the Bill to be forwarded to the Standing Committee on Science and Technology, Environment, Forests and Climate Change. It so happened that the Standing Committee was headed by an Opposition MP.
The JPC invited suggestions and objections from across the country, but on the condition that the response should be provided within a period of 15 days. Some 1300 “memoranda” or responses were received from stakeholders, which included state governments, non-governmental organisations, Central government Ministries and agencies.
The idea was to put the Amendment Bill through an extensive vetting process by way of considering the suggestions and objections, followed by the JPC compiling an unbiased report to be ultimately tabled in the Parliament. The “memoranda,” many of which raised concerns on the negative impact of the proposed Amendment, were largely ignored nor did the JPC incorporate its own views.
Concerns and suggestions from the Northeastern states, whose extensive forest cover fall within the 100 km deregulation range, were ignored by the Ministry of Environment, Forests and Climate Change (MoEFCC). As inferred from the JPC report, the Ministry’s views prevailed over the former.
It was tabled in the Parliament “as is” and passed without any debate, either in the Lok Sabha or Rajya Sabha, on July 26 and August 2, respectively. Call it fate or misfortune, on the days the Bill was put up for discussion, Parliament was overcome by raucous protests by Opposition MPs over the Manipur crisis.
That was how a Bill packed with changes that would have far-reaching impact on the health of forests, and potential conflict with indigenous communities, obtained legitimacy without notice of a wider audience.
The way the process unraveled, the stakeholders were handed with a fait accompli. They were forced to approve of an issue of great concern to the community, with the outcome predetermined, as opposed to accepted government procedures, which in essence, is expected to consider all opinions.
As for the Government of Nagaland, it clearly failed to give the Bill the desired publicity. As faced by the organisations and state governments during the so called ‘consultation’ stage, the grassroots stakeholders in Nagaland will also be faced with a hard and cold fait accompli.
For a government known for opting “public consultations” on anything relating to land and the community, in this case, it did not consult the primary stakeholders, who would feel the biggest impact of the now amended legislation. The danger is apparent enough, a surefire formula for conflict, wherein developers backed by the Ministries and agencies of the Union government would quote the re-amended legislation and landowners would cite Article 371 (A).
Further, contrary to the Union government claiming the erstwhile FC Act was unfavorable to security and development interests, no linear project (roads, railways and power lines) or other strategic assets has been vetoed by the Act. While it ensured scope for flexibility to allow for essential infrastructure development, it has helped in reducing diversion of forest lands for non-forestry use since its enactment in 1980.
As reported by The Indian Forester, citing MoEFCC data, the annual rate of forest diversion fell to 0.02 million hectares during 1980-1995 in comparison to the annual average of 0.15 million hectares recorded during 1950-80.
The writer is a Principal Correspondent at The Morung Express. Comments can be sent to [email protected]