Centre plans decriminalising Forest Act provisions, activists fear exploitation

ByJayashree Nandi, New Delhi
Jul 12, 2022 06:02 AM IST

The proposed changes in the Indian Forest Act 1927 include decriminalising kindling a fire or carrying fire in forest areas, felling trees and dragging timber

The Union environment ministry plans to decriminalise certain provisions of the Indian Forest Act 1927 in an attempt to reduce the harassment of people, according to a consultation paper released by the ministry on July 9, although environmental lawyers and activists fear that it could result in indiscriminate exploitation of forests.

Activists fear that decriminalising certain provisions of Forest Act could result in indiscriminate exploitation of forests (Mujeeb Faruqui/HT Photo)
Activists fear that decriminalising certain provisions of Forest Act could result in indiscriminate exploitation of forests (Mujeeb Faruqui/HT Photo)

The proposed changes include decriminalising kindling a fire or carrying fire in forest areas, felling trees and dragging timber and even felling or damaging a tree reserved under a special provision of the law. The ministry seeks to replace the provision of imprisonment for six months and fine, with a fine of 500.

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The ministry in its note on Saturday said that in order to decriminalise the existing provisions of the Indian Forest Act 1927, it plans to bring amendments in section 26 and 33 of IFA. Comments or suggestions to the draft amendment can be sent to the ministry before July 31. Legal experts said the move is regressive because it reduces the punishment of felling trees worth lakhs because of their timber and ecological value to a mere 500 fine.

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“IFA 1927 provides the legal framework for the protection and management of forest, transit of forest produce and timber and the duty leviable on timber and other forest produce. IFA is an umbrella act which provides the basic architecture for the management of forests in the country including providing mechanism to ensure notification of reserved, protected and village forests, protection of forest resources, forest biodiversity and wildlife of the country, the ministry said while adding that the ministry is conducting a review of the IFA 1927 for amendments of certain sections of the Act. “The exercise is focused on decriminalisation of relatively minor violations of law, expeditious resolution through compounding of relatively smaller offences, reducing compliance burden on citizens, rationalisation of penalties and preventing harassment of citizens,” the note said.

The note said that any person who kindles, keeps or carries fire except during seasons notified by forest officials, trespasses or pastures cattle, causes any damage by negligence in felling any tree or cutting or dragging any timber shall be punishable with fine that may extend to 500 in addition to compensation that the convicting court may direct. The present punishment under IFA for these offences is imprisonment for a term which may extend to six months or with fine which may extend to 500 or both in addition to compensation that the convicting court may direct to be paid.

Further, the note added that fire kindled by a person in the vicinity of any tree reserved under section 30; fells any tree or drags any timber so as to damage any tree reserved under the section 30 or permits cattle to damage any such tree shall be punishable with a fine that may extend to 500. The clause on imprisonment up to six months for these offences has been removed.

“While the intent to decriminalise a law to reduce hardship and harassment of people is a step in the right direction, this amendment is not about decriminalising the Act but to undermine the ecological value of forest in general and trees in particular. It is in fact aimed at not decriminalising violations but incentivising violations. Thus, for all offences including felling of trees worth lakhs even in terms of timber value not to mention ecological value, all that the law proposes to do is to impose a penalty of 500. This is a regressive step and I hope that as a result of public inputs, this is revoked,” said Ritwick Dutta, an environmental lawyer.

“It will be important to understand the proposed amendments to the IFA from two lenses. It partially addresses the pressure on forest dwelling communities who have faced convictions and have been in conflict with forest departments while accessing forest areas. While the proposed amendment does address the power hierarchies and does decriminalise instances especially where rights and access over reserved and protected forests are unclear, ambiguous or under review. However, the proposed amendments also run the risk of that large-scale tree felling without or in addition to prior permissions can seek refuge under the clauses of minor penalties,” said Kanchi Kohli, a legal researcher at the Centre for Policy Research.

“This amendment is being proposed to make the IFA regulation effective and save time on unnecessary formalities. It also seeks to remove unnecessary fears from general public’s mind,” a senior official from the environment ministry said.

Some violations of the air and water acts, the environment protection law and the public liability insurance law that deals with providing relief to victims of accidents while handling hazardous substances in industries will be decriminalised to remove the fear of imprisonment, the ministry said in consultation papers released last week. The consultation papers uploaded on the environment ministry website on Friday seek to increase penalties but absolve violators of criminal liability. They also propose to create various funds from the levies that will be utilised to mitigate the environmental damage. In the case of the public liability insurance law, the ministry seeks to remove the provision of prosecution. Only in the case of non-payment of penalty will the violator be prosecuted. The penalties will be collected under an environment relief fund.

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