Congress set to take on Modi government for diluting Forest Act

30 January 2016

The opposition Congress party is unleashing a nation-wide campaigns against the Narendra Modi government over diluting the Forest Rights Act after the party forced the government last year to withdraw amendments in the Land Acquisition Bill.

Congress leader Jairam Ramesh said his party will launch a nation-wide political campaign against the new guidelines under which degraded forests can be handed over to the private sector. The new legislation also seeks to do away with the need to get permission of "gram sabha" for setting up projects.

He said the government had initiated various steps to make the FRA ineffective. The environment ministry had done away with the clause that required the permission of gram sabhas to set up a project in a forest area, even in tribal areas, which effectively meant that the communities did not have a say in the matter any longer.

"The permission of the gram sabha and recognition of their rights under the Forest Rights Act is no longer necessary for putting up a project in a forest area. That, in our view, is a weakening of the Act," Ramesh said.

The Narendra Modi government, in its enthusiasm for the so-called ''ease of doing business'' had, over the past 18 months, issued guidelines and circulars aimed at synchronizing the Forests Rights Act (FRA) with "ease of business".

The Congress high command has also convened a meeting of state unit chiefs in Delhi to formulate a strategy for the campaign and also review implementation of Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (MG NREGA).

The aim is to portray the present government as anti-farmer on the lines of the campaign against the previous land bill amendments and force it to withdraw the amendments.

There are about 1.67 million forest dwellers, mostly tribals, across the country who are entitled to exploiting minor forest produce under the Forest Rights Act adopted in 2006.

The forest rights include 30,000 community forest resource rights and nearly 60 per cent of these rights have been bestowed on forest dwellers in Odisha and Tripura but Congress-ruled states are found wanting in implementing these.

Each holder of the title, called 'patta', is entitled to about 4 acres of land.

Ramesh alleged that the government had resorted to notification of rules under the colonial Indian Forest Act, guidelines for privatisation of forests, diversion of forest lands without the consent of the gram sabhas, and massive plantation in tribal lands to undermine the FRA.

"These moves have greatly affected the early gains made by the FRA in empowering the tribals and even halted the process of implementation in many states. All these exhibit an intolerance towards the democratic governance of forests in the country and the protective legislations enacted after a long struggle by the tribal and forest dwellers," he said.

He also cited the example of Menda Lekha, a tribal village in Maoist-affected Gadchiroli district of Maharashtra, which had become a national symbol of empowerment of the gram sabha when it was handed over control of bamboo from the forest department in 2011.

The village posted an annual income of Rs1 crore, Ramesh said, adding that the village was now protesting as the forest department has been bestowed with those rights.

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