Northeastern View | How the amended FCA can change the course of NE politics - Hindustan Times
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Northeastern View | How the amended Forest Conservation Act can change the course of NE politics

Feb 21, 2024 07:58 PM IST

The framework of national vs ecological security set up by the act is dangerous. The SC’s interim order gives us pause enough to go back to the drawing board

In the Northeast, a forest isn’t just a forest. It is a social and political entity tied to identity, representation and statecraft. For the region’s many ethnic groups, after all, forests are sacred extensions of their existence. This then means that forests have also often become flashpoints for conflict — between the state and the people, and between various communities.

Dzukou Valley in Nagaland is sacred to the Angami Naga tribe (Instagram/@jitofalltrades) PREMIUM
Dzukou Valley in Nagaland is sacred to the Angami Naga tribe (Instagram/@jitofalltrades)

When the Central government introduced an amendment to the Forest (Conservation) Act (FCA), 1980 in 2023, alarm bells went off in the Northeast. A clause in the amended act exempts clearance for forest land within 100 km of the international border or Line of Control or the Line of Actual Control if it is proposed to be used for construction of strategic linear projects of national importance and concerns national security. Most northeastern states would be covered under this, and activists contended that the act would open up the region’s verdant forests to destruction and extraction. The act was challenged in the Supreme Court. On February 19, the apex court, in an interim verdict, put a stay on some of the main changes proposed in the amendment.

This comes as a relief to the concerned voices in Northeast. But, why are forests so pivotal to the region? And how could the new amendment affect them?

Control through conservation

According to the India State of Forest Report (ISFR) 2021, 64.66% of Northeast India is covered with forests; 10.95% of the region is covered with very dense forests, and 27.65% with moderately dense forests. These show how ubiquitous forests are to the Northeast’s geography, and in turn, daily life. It is unsurprising, therefore, that they have been at the centre of some of the most endearing conflicts in the region.

At the heart of these conflicts are two aspects: conservation and community rights. Using forest conservation as a means to exert its own remit, the state has ended up threatening customary rights of ethnic communities who have lived in harmony with forestlands, drawing both life-giving resources and spiritual redemption.

Most recently, this has happened in Manipur where the Kuki-Zo groups have accused the state government of using forest conservation rules to evict the tribal community from their ancestral land. But, such practices have a longer history than we might think.

A short history of how forests were colonised

In 1874, the British East India Company created a new post called the “Deputy Conservator of Forests” for Assam, which was what all of Northeast India was called back then. Five years later, it upgraded the post to Conservator of Forests, making it even more powerful. Gustav Mann, the first person to occupy that post, introduced a stringent forest conservation regime. From leaving the Northeast’s forests untouched to bringing some 5338 sq km (42.2% of entire Assam Province) of forestland, most of them inhabited by tribal communities, under state control, the colonial administration set the stage for a confrontation that continues until this day.

The colonial forest regime saw little change after independence. In fact, the principal law governing forest control, the Indian Forest Act, was enacted in 1927. It gave the Indian government broad leeway to trample on customary rights of ethnic communities through reckless resource extraction and developmental endeavours. In turn, it created conditions for violent conflicts. Most insurgent groups that emerged in the Northeast since the 1960s, such as the United Liberation Front of Asom (ULFA), have used collective discontents around forest conservation and resource extraction to rationalise their armed struggle. Academic Anwesha Dutta has also shown how the Indian state has militarised forest conservation as part of its counterinsurgency doctrine.

To fix this, the FCA (1980) and the Forest Rights Act (FRA) 2006, were enacted to protect forest-dwelling communities. But, the new amendment risks diluting these critical safeguards.

National versus environmental security

Among the changes that the 2023 amendment makes in the FCA, is an exemption from clearance given to “strategic linear project[s] of national importance and concerning national security” that fall “within a distance of 100 kilometres along international borders or Line of Control or Line of Actual Control” or “up to 10 hectares, proposed to be used for construction of security related infrastructure.” It also limits the category of forests entitled for protection to only those that are either notified under the IFA or deemed as such in government records — a reversal of a 1996 Supreme Court judgement that offered broad-spectrum protection to India’s forests.

The apex court’s February 19 interim verdict put a stay on the narrow definition clause of the amendment. However, it remains unclear if the exception over “national security” projects would remain. If it does, large swathes of forestland in the Northeast, a politically volatile region with at least 5,135 km of international borders, would be opened up for infrastructure-building — and create a conflict with the exclusive autonomy over land use provided to northeastern states under Article 371 of the Indian Constitution. As per the ISFR, the forest cover in the Northeast has already come down by 1,020 sq km from 2019 to 2021.

The amendment would allow the Central government to clear the forests to proceed with its recently-announced plan to fence the India-Myanmar border, given the states through which it passes agree to allocate land. Notably, this ecologically diverse borderland is home to some of the rarest pine forests in all of the Indo-Pacific region as well as a wide array of wildlife species. The India-China border in Arunachal Pradesh, where intensifying strategic competition between the two countries has accelerated infrastructure-building, faces similar risks. Some tribal communities along that border are already locked in a battle with the Border Roads Organisation to save their sacred forests from destruction.

New Delhi needs to be wary of these faultl ines and avoid reinforcing its image as a resource-extracting, politically-overbearing, security-obsessed entity in Northeast India. Withdrawing the 2023 FCA amendment would be the first step.

Angshuman Choudhury is an Associate Fellow with the Centre for Policy Research, and focuses on Northeast India and Myanmar. The views expressed are personal.

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