Govt moves ahead with plan to amend Indian Forest Act
The ministry of environment, forest and climate change (MoEFCC) has inited bids from consulting agencies, firms, joint ventures and consortiums, in an attempt to amend the Indian Forest Act, 1927.
The ministry released the second expression of interest (EOI) last week – the first was released in April.
“Probably because of the second wave of Covid-19, we did not receive as many responses from law firms. More importantly, we are looking for firms with experience in litigation related to IFA. People who have dealt with cases related to IFA in courts may be better placed to draft the amendment,” said a senior official with the forest policy division of MoEFCC, requesting anonymity.
The government is hopeful of completing the process of amendment this year, the official said. “We got some applications by academics, but they have no experience of ground realities and the shortcomings of the Act. We hope to complete the amendment process this year,” he said.
The EOI published on June 22 states that the Centre is presently undertaking a review of legislation implemented by different ministries to bring them at pace with contemporary needs. The deadline for this is July 2, and the selected bidder is expected to complete the work in a maximum of seven months.
Any amendment to IFA is significant because it deals with the regulation of transit of forest produce and the regulation of reserved forests, protected forests and forestland that is not under government control. It also deals with various forest offences and penalties.
HT reported on June 5 that MoEFCC is working to bring about radical changes in the country’s environmental laws, including the Wildlife (Protection) Act, 1972. It is also preparing a draft environment management law that will subsume the Air Act of 1981, Water Act of 1974, and Environment (Protection) Act of 1986, and serve as an overarching law for all infrastructure and industry projects.
This will require wide consultations with the states and other stakeholders, and the study of important orders and judgments by India’s courts.
The amendment to the colonial-era Indian Forest Act will focus on decriminalising relatively minor violations of law; expeditious resolution of cases by compounding small offences; rationalisation of penalties; preventing the harassment of citizens; de-clogging of the criminal justice system; and promoting public and private participation in ushering in ease of doing business.
“A lot of cases in courts are related to minor offences under IFA. This needs to be resolved because it leads to unnecessary harassment of people. We also want the Act to facilitate private plantations,” added the official cited above.
Experts, however, have questioned the legal framework of the amendment. “The IFA has a 100-year legacy. It has shaped the ownership, access to, and distribution of forests and forest produce. It also manifests itself in the political contestations between various government departments, the forest bureaucracy, holders of forest rights and forest workers. Its amendment is as much about reconciling law as it is about realigning power equations,” said Kanchi Kohli, legal researcher, Centre for Policy Research.
She said that a hard legalistic framework or justification for IFA’s amendment is neither desirable nor will it be able to administer justice. “Any process to amend the IFA has to move away from the hierarchies of the past and understand the conservation challenges of the future, including that of climate change,” Kohli said.
MoEFCC had released a draft amendment to IFA in 2017. “Based on the comments received, it has been considered that a more comprehensive and pragmatic amendment of the Indian Forest Act may be examined,” the EOI states.
The ministry had released another draft amendment in 2019, which had several contentious clauses in its definition of forests. But one of the main concerns of tribal groups and activists was that the proposed amendment gave more powers to forest officers, including in the use of firearms, and greater immunity from prosecution. The draft was withdrawn following protests.
The other stated objectives of the amendment, as highlighted by the EOI, include the removal of difficulties in the trade and transit of forest products to encourage economic growth in the forestry sector; and encouraging the private sector, civil society, and individuals to take up tree planting or develop/manage private forests on non-forest lands on their own.