Resist the anti-Adivasi designs of the BJP government

The Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) government at the centre continues its offensive against India's forests and forest communities. Following its criminal failure to defend Forest Rights Act in the Supreme Court, this unabashedly pro-corporate and anti-people government now comes up with a proposal for amendments to the colonial Indian Forests Act. The proposed amendments would not only make forest bureaucracy more powerful than ever, but also de facto finish the Forest Rights Act altogether, besides legalising the entry of big corporates into forestry sector.

This was not unexpected. To the Indian state, forest rights act is an aberration, which puts the Adivasis and other forest dwelling communities at the centre and effectively challenges state hegemony over forests. While the act itself is not a panacea, it has proved instrumental in catalysing newer struggles for autonomy and dignity. People have successfully invoked the act in resisting corporate takeover of India's forests, forcing the state to recognise its powers.

This situation is not acceptable to the state and its corporate allies. While the efforts to dilute the Forest Rights Act started during the tenure of the previous UPA government at the centre, systematic and relentless attacks on the legislation started only after the present BJP government came to power in 2014. In the same year the National REDD plus strategy was released, which called for wholesale commodification of India's forests in the name of climate change mitigation and significantly undermined Forest Rights Act. In 2015, the government came out with a prescription for privatising India's forests, which had to be shelved because of widespread protests.

In 2016, the infamous Compensatory Afforestation Act was passed, paving way for channeling unlimited amounts of money to the forest department. In 2018, the National Forest Policy was launched, which prescribed, among other things, unimpeded entry of corporate capital in forestry, besides legalising joint forest management. Meanwhile, the case against FRA in the Supreme Court continued as usual, and the BJP government decided not to defend the law.

The present amendments to the Indian Forest Act have to be seen in the context of this systemic and planned attack against the FRA. Once and for all, the Indian state wants to junk this remarkable piece of legislation that obstructs its neoliberal agenda of putting India's forests to sale. In the Forest Rights Act, people and their institutions such as Gram Sabhas are at the centre, the real and the only authority in determining how the forests would be used. In the amended Indian Forest Act, the forest department is back in control, with sweeping and obscene powers to deny, curtail and 'acquire' all sorts of forest rights, overriding the provisions of the FRA and PESA. In the FRA, the forest communities and their Gram Sabhas and traditional institutions are in charge of forest conservation. In the amended Indian Forest Act, the forest department zamindars would be the authority to determine how a forest would be 'conserved'--they can give it away to private entities if necessary.

The new IFA gives the forest officials unlimited penal powers: people, the rightful owners of forests can now be arbitrarily punished, jailed, beaten up, if necessary, killed. The accused have to prove their innocence in all forest cases in future, while the officials would have complete immunity--they could not be brought to book for whatever atrocities they might like to commit. In the Forest Rights Act, the Gram Sabha is the legitimate conservation agency. The amended IFA supplants the Gram Sabha first with forest officials and then Joint Forest Management Committees, which are created and controlled by the forest department.

Along with all Movements platforms, concerned civil society representatives and groups, we at AIFFM condemn and reject the proposed Amendments to the Indian Forest Act 1927. At the same time, we demand that instead of strengthening this fundamentally coercive and undemocratic colonial act, it must be scrapped. The country is soon going to elect a new parliament. It's up to them to ensure that the Forest Rights Act is defended and the Indian Forest Act is forthwith scrapped. One can't foresee a BJP majority parliament doing that. In fact, BJP's return to power would only aggravate the general sense of insecurity among the millions of forest dwellers of India, and expose them to greater dangers of a stronger forest bureaucracy and increased corporate control over forests. AIFFM calls upon all forest dwelling people of the country to be vigilant and cautious while going to vote. Let's unite against the conspiracy to sell our forests and evict our people. Let's defend our forests, sovereignty and dignity. Let's defend FRA. Let the resistance continue and engulf all parts of India's forests.

Vol. 52, No. 2, Jul 14 - 20, 2019