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A 'fillip' to land grab: Sitharaman's Rs 6,000 crore offer for compensatory afforestation

Counterview Desk
The Community Forest Rights - Learning and Advocacy (CFR-LA), a national advocacy ground, demanding transfer of compensatory afforestation funds to Gram Sabhas, has said that any plan to transfer these to state forest departments will allow land grabs for commercial plantations, even as increasing distress in tribal areas.
Taking strong exception to finance minister Nirmala Sitharaman allocation Rs 6,000 crore to the Compensatory Afforestation Fund Management and Planning Authority (CAMPA) as part of the elf-reliant India economic package, CFR-LA said in a statement that it would lead massive diversion of forest land for non-forest purposes without forest dwellers’ consent.

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Finance Minister Nirmala Sitharaman has announced that plans worth Rs 6,000 crore would be approved under the Compensatory Afforestation Fund Management and Planning Authority (CAMPA)* as part of the Atma Nirbhar or “self-reliant” India economic package announced by Prime Minister Narendra Modi.
The issues of deprivation and lack of healthcare facilities persisting in tribal areas that may severely limit the capacities to curb the spread of the disease, tribal migrants stranded in cities, lack of institutional mechanisms and access for procurement and distribution of minor forest produce (MFP), forest land diversions, non-implementation of progressive legislations like Forest Rights Act, 2006 etc. have not been addressed.
On the contrary, funds have been approved under the CAMPA which has a potential to destroy the livelihoods and employment of tribals and cause further displacement and exploitation of the tribal people.
In the past, CAF Act has been opposed by tribal goups, opposition parties and even government’s own Ministry of Tribal Affairs (MoTA). In a letter to the Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change (MoEFCC) written in March 2018, MoTA had argued that the draft CAF rules dilute the provisions of the Forest Rights Act (FRA).
This announcement for releasing CAMPA funds to the states for employment generation ignores the earlier concerns raised by tribal groups on violation of land and forest rights by CAMPA plantation. Tribal groups have earlier opposed the Compensatory Afforestation Fund (CAF) Act and rules which allow for illegal transfer of Compensatory Afforestation Fund (CAF) to the forest departments. The compensatory afforestation causes double deprivation of the communities by
  • Diverting forest land for non-forest purposes without forest dwellers’ consent. This results in a loss of access to ecosystem services on which their survival depends. They derive numerous benefits from forest resources, including their livelihood and food security, through the gathering of fruits, roots, tubers and so on.
  • CA activities which are intended to be taken up on lands not recorded as forests in lieu of the diverted forests. These lands of various categories like village forest, village commons, zamindari forests and government/ Panchayat lands all carry certain rights of access, recorded or unrecorded, legal or customary, for collecting fuel wood, grazing animals and so on. 
Since the time the CAF Act was proposed (in 2016), the tribal groups have consistently demanded for a democratic management of CAMPA funds by transferring the funds to the Gram Sabhas and ensuring that the CA activities are taken up with free prior consent of Gram Sabhas (GSs) as mandated by FRA and the Provisions of the Panchayats (Extension to the Scheduled Areas) Act, 1996 (PESA).
This demand has been further reiterated in the light of Covid19 outbreak, so that the Gram Sabhas can utilise the already collected CAMPA funds standing at a massive 57,000 crores today, to implement FRA and respond to the local needs due to the diversity of the geographical and regional areas in which many of India’s tribal communities are located.
Past experience says that over the years the state forest department (s) have used CA funds to set up plantations (mostly monoculture and commercial species) in lands cultivated and used by tribal communities leading to violation of their rights and conflicts.
Economic relief package announced by PM and FM fails to address the economic distress of tribal communities caused by Covid-19
The monocultures have also destroyed local biodiversity, Non-timber forest produce (NTFPs) and forest foods used by tribals. Not only that, massive corruption and irregularities have been reported in administration of CA funds by the forest department with serious charges of ghost plantations, replacement of natural forests with monocultures being reported from across the states. Even the MoTA has earlier raised concerns about violation of tribal rights due to CAMPA.
Therefore the announcement of transferring CAMPA funds (Rs 6,000 crore) can further exacerbate the distress situation that tribals are already facing and is far from providing any relief to them. There are already reports of forest department carrying out plantation activities during lockdown period causing hardships to the tribal communities. There are also reports of eviction taking place during this time.
Overall the economic relief package announced by the Prime Minister and the Finance Minister fails to address the economic distress of tribal communities caused due to Covid-19 outbreak and the unplanned lockdown measures.
Earlier, on May 4, a group of civil society organisations, activists, researchers and experts working with tribals and forest dwelling communities submitted a report to MoTA. The report highlights the socio-economic distress situation in tribal areas arising out of Covid-19 outbreak and lockdown measures.
The report was also submitted to the Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change (MoEFCC), Ministry of Rural Development (MoRD), Ministry of Panchayati Raj (MoPR), Ministry of Home Affairs (MoHA), National Commission for Scheduled Tribes (NCST), Prime Minister’s Office and the Niti Ayog, and to the National Disaster Mitigation Authority. The report clearly highlighted the need to come up with a Covid 19 response package for tribals which included the demand to transfer the CAMPA funds to the Gram Sabhas.
Many of these concerns were reiterated by political leaders and experts Jairam Ramesh and Shashi Tharoor of Congress, Vijoo Krishnan of the All-India Kisan Sabha (CPI-M), Jharkhand Mukti Morcha (JMM), Rashtriya Janata Dal (RJD), apart from leading environmentalists and forest rights experts Ashish Kothari, Shankar Gopalakrishnan, Kanchi Kohli, tribal rights activist Hansraj Meena, historian and writer Ramachandra Guha and hundreds of others on Twitter (hashtag: #covidandforestrights).
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*Compensatory afforestation means the afforestation of plantations of an equivalent area of non-forest land or of double the area of degraded notified forest to compensate for the loss of forests diverted for development activities. The user of this diverted forest is required to pay its ‘net present value’ to the forest department for this purpose. On the direction of the Supreme Court, a law has been enacted and rules framed to manage the money collected for afforestation. 
The contents of this legislation and the manner of its enforcement have, however, led to a severe reduction of the tribals’ access to forest resources, forcible plantation on their village commons, pastures and even on patta land, and the relocation of their settlements from forests, thereby violating their rights in land and forests. It has also led to severely eroding their means of livelihood besides creating a perverse incentive for deforestation. 

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