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Why the CAF bill conflicts with the Forest Rights Act?
Land is an asset, a source of income, a sense of security and a symbol of dignity. No wonder wars have been fought over land between nations and within families. For any society it becomes important to put rules and regulation for resolution of conflicts. A framework of justice guides formulation of such regulations. In India forests have been a contested domain since colonial times. But in 2006, there was a landmark act, which settled the injustice of centuries against forest dependent communities with one stroke. By enactment of Scheduled Tribes and Other Traditional Forest Dwellers (Recognition of Forest Rights) Act, 2006, also known as Forest Rights Act (FRA), first claim to use and manage the forest was kept with the people who have been living there for the last three generations and whose life, livelihoods and culture is woven around forest resources. Once the claims of these forest dependent communities get settled, then only other claims for diversion of forest for other usage other than forests such as mining, infrastructure, industry and roads, etc. could be taken. Not only the rights were given to communities for usage of forest resources but also for its management and governance.
However, for success of any legislation, it is important that not only it is implemented over time in letter and spirit by the state, but also that other acts governing the similar subject should not contradict each other. The newly passed Compensatory Afforestation Fund (CAF) bill has the potential to dilute rights given to gram sabha under FRA. CAF bill is about setting up a new institution called CAMPA — Compensatory Afforestation Management and Planning Authority for the utilisation of funds collected for compensatory afforestation. CAF bill could not be passed in the last session of Parliament on the grounds that it would be interfering with the rights given to communities under FRA. However, it has been passed in the current session of the Rajya Sabha on assurance by the government that these concerns would be taken care of when the rules are formulated.
Before going to specific concerns with CAF bill, let’s see what compensatory afforestation and CAMPA stand for.
The spirit of “Compensatory Afforestation” need to be appreciated as it acknowledges various ecological services provided by forest resources over and above economic value and is mandated by the Forest Conservation Act, 1980. It deters forest diversion by putting a compensation value on forest resources calculated for a period of 50 years on the basis of the net present value of the diverted forest with cost of afforestation added to it. However as there was underutilisation of compensatory funds by states, in 2002, under a Supreme Court order, an ad-hoc national level Compensatory Afforestation Fund Management and Planning Authority (CAMPA) was set up to manage funds. Underutilisation was, however, reported again in CAG report 2013, which led to the formulation of CAF bill in 2015. Over the years, the compensatory fund reached an amount of Rs 41 ,000 crores and was kept in nationalised banks in the absence of a formal institutional arrangement. It was important to unlock this fund through proper institutional mechanism so that the funds could be routed back to the people, with whom forest rights were vested by the Parliament. But unfortunately, in the recently passed CAF bill, funds are being vested with forest bureaucracy in a way that it gives them absolute power to decide where and what kind of plantations will be done. On the other hand, the power vested with gram sabha for due consent in areas eligible for FRA has been conveniently bypassed. And here lies the problem.
FRA shifted power out of the hands of the forest bureaucracy, and used a fair justice framework to give power back to the people on ground. Forest department registered its resistance to passage of FRA Act in 2006. Since the conflict between control exercised by forest department and rights of the people on their forest resources, goes back to colonial times and is deep rooted, this development needs to be seen beyond the dichotomy of political parties i.e. the ruling party and the opposition. The forest bureaucracy despite passage of FRA act, through Forest Development Authority and with Joint forest management (JFM) schemes tried to ignore the existence of FRA. Forest Development Corporations continued with their business of trading in non-timber forest produce; transit passes were required for people to take out their non-timber forest produce as usual; and on top of business as usual there has been continuous non-cooperation approach followed by forest department in settling rights under FRA.
Now if the control is being given back to the forest bureaucracy under CAF bill, it would be a retrograde step. Question is not only how CAF rules take due cognisance of rules under FRA Act and uphold the right of consent of gram sabha, but it is also time for required administrative reforms of the forest department. The government needs to see that over a period of time forest bureaucracy is oriented to acknowledge and appreciate that as public servants their role has to be subservient to requirement of gram sabha who governs the forest resources. Any lesser than this would be detrimental for implementation of both the acts, public resources and grassroots democracy.
Written by: Vanita Suneja, Lead Specialist – Economic Justice, Oxfam India
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