Forest fund Bill failed as it didn't respect tribals: Jairam

On Friday, Prime Minister Narendra Modi regretted that the Compensatory Afforestation (CA) Bill could not be passed in the budget session of Parliament. On Saturday, outgoing Rajya Sabha member from Congress Jairam Ramesh hit back at the NDA, saying the reason the bill could not be cleared was that it did not respect the rights of people under the Forest Rights Act and gave unbridled control over thousands of crores to forest bureaucracy.

The CA bill intends to send a large part of the funds collected from industry back to the state governments. Such a fund was created out of Supreme Court orders and has so far accumulated nearly Rs 40,000 crore, but has been lying unutilised with the Centre. Each year, it generates more than a couple of thousand crore as industries get greater access to chop down forest land. But the bill was stuck in the Rajya Sabha this session when the Congress, CPM, JD(U) and the TMC came together giving notice for amendments. They sought that plantation work by forest departments on tribals’ and forest dwellers’  lands should be done only with their prior informed consent, as required under the Forest Rights Act. The NDA government has over the past two years tried repeatedly to dilute the consent powers of tribals under the FRA through executive orders but has failed in the face of unrelenting opposition from the tribal affairs ministry.

On Saturday Ramesh shot off a note to Environment Minister Prakash Javadekar who had piloted the bill. He said, “The Prime Minister failed to mention that the reason this bill could not be passed was his own government's inexplicable decision to not include any provisions in the bill for respecting the rights of forest dwellers bestowed by the Forest Rights Act, 2006, when engaging in afforestation projects.”

He added, “This shows clearly that the government does not intend to respect forest rights, as is apparent from its moves to lease forest lands to private companies and similar steps. It is for the Prime Minister to explain why his government is so keen on transferring thousands of crores to forest bureaucrats without any measures to ensure that these funds are not misused, and that the rights of our country's poorest people are protected.” On Friday Prime Minister Modi had pitched it as a stymied attempt of the NDA government to provide thousands of crores back to states to use for their forestry efforts, a step that many states have long demanded. The NDA, unwilling to bring in the consent powers of tribals and other forest dwellers into the CA Bill and mindful of lacking numbers in the Rajya Sabha, decided to defer the bill to the monsoon session, hoping to pitch it in the interim as a bill that would only aid state governments, whether ruled by the NDA or other parties. But the Congress and the Left have assessed the bill to be in line with NDA’s already proclaimed policy of letting industry and private entities get into afforestation as a business, a move that all previous governments, regardless of political hue, have rejected. Such proposals were previously mooted in the UPA but held back with concerns raised over the impact on the millions of tribals and others who have direct rights in forests and indirect dependence on the green cover.

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