’Almost 2/3rds of state geographical area is under the jurisdiction of forest, More than 90 per cent of the population is rural and the communities fall under the categories of Scheduled Tribes and Other Traditional Forest Dwellers under the purview of the Forest Rights Act 2006.’ the organisation said. The draft published in English on the Ministry website invite Comments and objections till 1st November from the public which leaves the possibility of any democratic process in this exercise where people should have a say, said Asher.
Himachal Pradesh is a flora and fauna biodiversity hotspot, home to a variety of forests. These stand threatened due to large scale construction of dams, four lane highways, mines and other infrastructure. Further, the state is under the severe impact of climate crisis especially disasters, leading to loss of lives and public property, year after year since the last decade or so.
One of the key mitigation measures thus is protection of the existing forests as well as strengthening of local communities’ ownership and management of forest resources. However the draft amendments seem to be doing the opposite. ‘The changes proposed by the ministry are about deregulating the clearance process to benefit the interests of private companies’.
For example, exempting a central government forest clearance requirement for infrastructure projects in border areas. ‘Such an amendment would be an utmost disaster.
Most of these border areas in Himachal are also highly fragile, high altitude regions where forests exist in small patches and play a critical role in maintain the ecological balance of such areas.
The forests in these areas are already in a compromised position with the diversion of forests for ongoing development activities’, the submission states. ‘Most importantly these areas also happen to be tribal districts where indigenous communities have their rights under the Forest Rights Act 2006, which are still in the process of being settled.
Any change in land use change and forest diversion will have to be carried out with the gram sabha consent in place. This provision cannot be over-ridden’. Even the proposal to allow underground activities in a forest area like drilling for oil exploration without a forest clearance is problematic.
‘If we speak of mountain contexts geology, hydrology, topography and ecological setting play an important role, they added. There is ample evidence that any underground construction here disturbs both physiographic conditions and hydrological regimes which become visible only later in the form of cracks on the grounds, landslides, drying up of springs and seepages and many times drying of vegetation on the surface.
“When project proponents (and their contractors) use any technology their primary aim is efficiency and meeting the goal of their project in a timely manner to avoid cost overruns and ensure profits. Neither principles of science and nor law govern their work,” Asher stated.. There is no doubt that underground activity has adverse ecological impacts and cannot be exempted from FCA provisions.
Threats to landless and marginal farmers
The submission further questions the proposal to remove ‘private forests’ from the definition of forests for plantation activities. “Many such private forests are contiguously spread over an area of several square kilometres and are ‘owned’ by the landed elite. For example the Shamlaat forests which have been returned to private landed shareholders in 2001. These lands are used for common and other purposes by landless communities who have rights on these lands.
Before changing application of the FCA on private and deeemed forests, spread over lakhs of hectares in HP, there needs to be a detailed understanding or study about the socio-economic and ecological services these private forests play in different contexts and the probable conflicts which will be heightened if those who are so called ‘owners’ of these forests are given a free hand to erect structures within such lands,’ asserted Asher.
Mindless plantations have become fashionable – are a waste of resources on one hand with poor survival rates and interfere with rights of livestock rearers of the state.
‘All these years landless and marginal farmers of Himachal Pradesh belonging to SC and ST communities suffered as their nautor land grants (land allotment to poor) were stuck due to FCA 1980 provisions. Despite repeated appeals no exemptions were made for the landless.” activist said.
Now the MoEF&CC is making exemptions to transfer these lands for plantation activities and benefit the landed elite’,
It is shocking that all these years, adivasis, forest dependent people suffered as a result of the strict regulatory provisions of the FCA and no relief was provided to them by suggesting amendments in FCA.
Finally, they were made stakeholders by recognising the historical injustice through the Forest Rights Act 2006. However, the draft proposed by the Ministry is silent on the provisions of FRA.
“Just as the FCA amended rules of 2017 have included the condition of settlement of rights and NoC of gramsabha under the provisions of FRA, 2006 for forest clearance; there is a need to include the provisions of FRA in the principal FCA, 1980. Only then would the provisions of FRA, 2006 be followed in toto. “
“Any activity on forest land, even if it is a plantation, should be through the gram sabha to ensure that the forests and local interests are protected.”
Detailed Consultations at the state level with public participation should be carried out to understand the real issues with the FCA 1980 before introducing any amendments, she added.