A proposed legislation accords significant powers to India’s forest officers — including the power issue search warrants, enter and investigate lands within their jurisdictions, and to provide indemnity to forest officers using arms to prevent forest-related offences.
The Indian Forest Act, 2019 is envisaged as an amendment to the Indian Forest Act, 1927 and is an attempt to address contemporary challenges to India’s forests. The draft law has been sent to key forest officers in the States for soliciting comments and objections until June 7, says an accompanying note by the Union Environment Ministry.
“…Amendment proposed to provide indemnity to Forest-officer using arms etc, to prevent the forest offence…Forest-officer not below the rank of a Ranger shall have power to hold an inquiry into forest offences…and shall have the powers to search or issue a search warrant under the Code of Criminal Procedure, 1973…” says a copy of the document which hasn’t been made public yet, “…Any Forest-officer not below the rank of a Forester may, at any time enter and inspect any land within his area of jurisdiction…”
Officials at the Union Environment Ministry said that the draft was “preliminary,” “extremely pro-people” and explicitly provided for traditional forest dwellers to jointly manage forests with officers. “Several of these provisions exist in the State Forest Acts…however, we need a strong law to increase our forest cover from about 24% now to 33% [a stated directive of government policy],” Siddhantha Das, Director-General, Forestry, told The Hindu .
“Village forests”, according to the proposed Act, may be forestland or wasteland, which is the property of the government and would be jointly managed by the community through the Joint Forest Management Committee or Gram Sabha.
The legislation also proposes a forest development cess of up to 10% of the assessed value of mining products removed from forests, and water used for irrigation or in industries. This amount would be deposited in a special fund and used “exclusively for reforestation; forest protection and other ancillary purposes connected with tree planting, forest development and conservation,” the draft document noted.
Independent experts said that the proposed law would lead to conflicts during implementation, particularly when seen in the context of the Forest Rights Act, 2006.
“In effect, the aim is to strengthen the forest bureaucracy in terms of deciding on how to decide on [title claims] over forest land, what parts to declare [off-limits] for conservation, checking encroachments, etc.,” said Kanchi Kohli, researcher at the New Delhi-based think tank, the Centre for Policy Research, who has perused the draft, “However, things have dramatically changed since 1927…[with] new laws, greater rights accorded to forest dwellers by the Constitution. So how will the provisions of the new Act be implemented?”
On February 28, the Supreme Court stayed its own controversial order of Feb 13, directing State governments to evict nearly a million forest dwellers who couldn’t prove their title claims to forest land. This was after it emerged that several States had high rejection rates and due process in checking claims wasn’t always followed.