Skip to main content

Telangana govt proposes to give unfettered powers to forest officials, 'help' corporates

By Dr Palla Trinadha Rao*
The Telangana Government is contemplating to replace the Telangana Forest Act 1967 with a new law - the Telangana Forest Act (TFA) 2019, trampling the rights of adivasis ensured under the Scheduled Tribes and other Traditional Forest Dwellers (Recognition of Forest Rights) Act, 2006 (FRA Act 2006) and Panchayats Extension to Schedule Area (PESA) Act 1996 both of which are central acts.
The FRA recognizes and vests diverse preexisting rights to forest dwelling Scheduled Tribes (STs) and Other Traditional Forest Dwellers (OTFDs) who have been residing in such forests for generations but whose rights could not be vested.
The proposed law confers a vast array of almost unfettered powers to the forest officials, and conflicts with and tramples the central laws as FRA and PESA which it should not, while promising to serve corporate interests welcoming them with open arms. The proposed law is in almost complete conflict with the National Forest Policy of 1988 which talks of symbiotic relationship of tribals with forests and serving community needs to be the prime purpose of forests.
If enacted, the law would surely escalate the simmering tension in the forest region of the State due to non-compliance by forest officials with FRA and their violations, converting the forests into a conflict zone.

From trustee of the forests, to servers of corporate interests

The major shift proposed by the law is in the creation of a new category of forests “Production Forests” for production of timber, pulp wood, fire wood etc in reserved, protected and unclassified forests to make these raw materials available to the industries. Private companies and the corporate sector are allowed to grow the forest products in private and institutional lands, and transport the harvested crops.
The Forest Department is to dovetail market interventions with agro forestry activities in such private lands. The Forest Department is to serve the corporate and business interests primarily. This can effectively be done only when the forests are securely fully free of any encumbrance.

Unbridled powers to forest bureaucracy

The forest officials can use fire arms and cause injury to any person and take possession of property in the name of commission and prevention of commission of any offence under the proposed law and the Wild Life (Protection) Act 1972. Moreover, the officials are covered by providing impunity for their actions without prior sanction from the State Government. And the State Government would not sanction prosecution unless the Executive Magistrate conducts an inquiry.
This provides ample scope to escape prosecution by managing the local Tahsildars and other revenue officials. The proposed Act does not permit the State Government to with draw the cases filed under the Principal Act, against the accused with the permission of the court. 
This is contrary to the procedure contemplated under Section 321 CrPC which permits the prosecution to withdraw the criminal cases filed with the permission of the court. The proposed Act also provides impunity to the forest officials for any act done by them in good faith which will not be considered as an offence.
The onus of proof of innocence is sought to be the burden of the accused in all prosecution cases turning on its head the well established dictum of ‘innocence until proved guilty’. The burden of proof lies always on the prosecution in all criminal cases to prove that the case filed against the accused is beyond any reasonable doubt.
This would virtually mean that enjoyment of forest rights under PESA and FRA could very well become, on a routine basis, an alleged forest offence which will require the right holders to prove again and again their innocence and a part of the rightful enjoyment of rights. With no consequences inbuilt in the law for false allegation, this would predictably become an instrument to smoke out and drive the forest dwellers away from the forests.
The proposed law gives power to the police, revenue and the forest officials to arrest and seize equipments if they believe is a result of or being used to commit a forest offence. Such powers for mere suspicion is a open freeway for abuse of the power. The State Government is to develop infrastructure for lockup rooms, transportation of accused, armories, ammunitions, etc.
The confessional statement recorded by the forest official from the accused is admissible as an evidence, which is against the cardinal legal principle of Section 25 and 26 of Indian Evidence Act which says that the confessional statement involving incriminatory acts is not admissible in the Courts. This is an open invite for extraction of confession through inducement or coercion which would incarcerate even innocent tribals in false forest cases.

Snuffing out rights, tweeking procedures

The draft Telangana Forest Act (TFA) 2019 gives enormous powers to the Forest Settlement Officer (FSO) from forest department, much more than what the Britishers did through the Indian Forest Act of 1927.
The authority to determine the rights of any persons over any land during the declaration of Reserve Forests that is vested with the Revenue Divisional Officer under the Telangana Forest Act 1967 is now to be handed over to the Forest Officials. Moreover, the time limit to give objections by the affected people to the constitution of Reserve Forest (RF) is to be halved from the existing six months period to three months.
The rights of persons will be extinguished if no claim is preferred within the time limit. The same FSO will also act as land acquisition officer to acquire the lands or enter into agreement with the owner to surrender his rights under the proposed Act. The Revenue officials are to be kept out from adjudicating the claims at preliminary stage itself and also in the acquisition of lands.
No longer can the person aggrieved by the rejection of claims by the FSO can go to the District Court for final orders as is possible under the existing 1967 Act. Instead, the appeal is to be made only to the District Collector. The time limit for filing the appeal is also halved to 3 months from 6 months. The aggrieved person can appeal to the State Government against the order of the District Collector for the revision. Thus the judicial intervention is kept outside of the framework of adjudication.
The proposed draft prohibits the entry into reserved forests except for livelihood activities for the rights recognized under the FRA. This in effect violates the authority of the rights holders and the Gram Sabha to protect, conserve, manage and regulate forest use under Section 3(1)(i) and 5 under FRA.
It is altogether another fact, that at present the determination of rights of individuals or communities under FRA are far from complete or correct. The proposed law further imposes restrictions on the tribals contrary to the FRA.
The State Government is being empowered to notify the trees or forest produce, grazing lands etc in protected forests and regulate their use or even suspend the rights of persons in violation of FRA. The forest officials can also evict the tribals from the forests lands if they feel that their activity is contrary to the Rules of Protected Forest.
The proposed law completely tramples on tribal rights in the Scheduled Areas in the exercise of their power in private lands for removal of dead or fallen trees to do anything for making agricultural implements as before. Further, the proposed law removes the right of tribals to cut trees in their private lands to develop their lands with the permission of the District Collector.
Modeled almost exact on the lines of the draft Bill to comprehensively amend the Indian Forest Act, 1927 that the Ministry of Environment, Forest & Climate Change circulated on March 7 this year to the Principal Chief Conservators of Forests of the states for comments by June 6 which has now been extended to August 17, one wonders why this tearing hurry to make this the law for the State when one does not even know whether the centre would enact the proposed Bill as given now.
If not, anyway some or many provisions of the proposed state enactment would become legally redundant. It does not make legal sense anyway. Perhaps the overzealous bureaucracy has gone overboard. Hope good political and legal sense prevails.
---
*Tribal rights activist, lawyer and researcher based in Rajahmundry, Andhra Pradesh

Comments

sarven006 said…
THANKS FOR THE VALUABLE INFO Sir,

TRENDING

Young environmentalist's arrest 'sinister', even parents not told of her whereabouts

By Our Representative  The Coalition for Environmental Justice in India (CEJI), a civil society network, has said that it is “highly disturbing” that Disha Ravi, a young woman climate activist from Bengaluru was “picked up” in what is referred to as a “closely guarded operation” of the Delhi police. Disha, 21, has been remanded to police custody for five days after she was taken from Bengaluru to Delhi.

Mukesh Ambani's earnings during Covid 'can lift' 40% informal workers out of poverty

By Dr Gian Singh*  The Inequality Virus Report released by Oxfam, a non-profit organization, on January 25, 2021 on the growing inequalities in different parts of the world, sheds light on the growing economic, educational, healthcare and gender inequalities in India. The report has revealed that the wealth of billionaires has increased by 35 per cent during the lockdown period in the country.

US forensic revelation enough evidence to release Sudha Bharadwaj, others: Civicus

Counterview Desk  Civicus, a Johannesburg-based global alliance of civil society organisations and activists claiming to have presence in 175 countries with 9,000 members and working for strengthening citizen action, has sought immediate release of Sudha Bharadwaj, arrested in 2018 under the anti-terror Unlawful Activities Prevention Act (UAPA) and accused of having links with the banned Communist Party of India (Maoist).

Golwalkar's views on tricolour, martyrs, minorities, caste as per RSS archives

By Shamsul Islam*  First time in the history of independent India, the in-charge minister of the Cultural Ministry in the current Modi government, Prahlad Singh Patel, has glorified MS Golwalkar, second supremo of the RSS and the most prominent ideologue of the RSS till date, on his birth anniversary, February 19. In a tweet he wrote : “Remembering a great thinker, scholar, and remarkable leader #MSGolwalkar on his birth anniversary. His thoughts will remain a source of inspiration & continue to guide generations.”

Swami Vivekananda's views on caste and sexuality were 'painfully' regressive

By Bhaskar Sur* Swami Vivekananda now belongs more to the modern Hindu mythology than reality. It makes a daunting job to discover the real human being who knew unemployment, humiliation of losing a teaching job for 'incompetence', longed in vain for the bliss of a happy conjugal life only to suffer the consequent frustration.

No Election Commission safeguard against electromagnetic hacking of EVM: Study

Counterview Desk  Releasing a new study simultaneously in Chennai and Kolkata in view of the forthcoming elections in Tamil Nadu and West Bengal, the Citizens’ Commission on Elections (CCE) – a civil society initiative – has regretted “lack of integrity of EVM voting”, pointing out, the Election Commission of India (ECI) does not appear to safeguard against the possibilities of ‘side-channel attacks’, i.e, hacking electronic devices through electromagnetic and other methods.

20% of FIRs against journalists in 2020 alone, targeted attacks in 2021 'too many to count'

Counterview Desk  Condemning what it calls “alarming rise in state repression and clampdown on news outlets and journalists” that “expose” the anti-people nature of the establishment, India's top civil society network, National Alliance of People’s Movements (NAPM) has demanded “immediate release of arrested journalists, withdrawal of arbitrary charges and protection of media persons facing threats.”

'Viability' of agricultural cooperatives vs govt proposed pro-corporate economic model

Dr Gian Singh* The farmer struggle started from Punjab against the promulgation of three agricultural ordinances by the Union government in June 2020 and the enactment of three bills by Parliament in September 2020 to replace these ordinances is unique in many respects. There is no other example of such a peaceful and democratic farmer struggle.

Whither right to food? Social security scheme allocation for woman, child 'reduced'

Counterview Desk Pointing out that women and children have been ignored in the Union Budget 2021-22, the advocacy group Right to Food Campaign (RtFC) has said that the Government of India should have taken into account the fact that even after the lockdown was lifted, distress among marginalized communities continues, with people having lower incomes and reduced food consumption.

NAPM extends support to Indian, Aussie citizen groups 'opposing' Adani ventures

#StopAdani action in Australia  Counterview Desk  The civil rights network, National Alliance of People’s Movements (NAPM), extending solidarity to the global campaign by the Youth Action to Stop Adani (YAStA), held in recently in Australia and India, has said that the effort was to bring more attention to the struggle aboriginal, indigenous peoples, farmers, working class and other oppressed communities against allegedly anti-people multinational corporate conglomerates.