Make consent of gram sabha mandatory for every afforestation project, says petition in Rajya Sabha

New Delhi, Jul 16, 2017 : Environmentalists and forest rights experts from across the country have recently filed an appeal with the petitions committee of the Rajya Sabha to halt any expenditure from compensatory afforestation funds until rules on its implementation are notified. 

The rules should make "informed consent" from gram sabhas and indigenous people mandatory for any afforestation project to be undertaken by the forest department under the Compensatory Afforestation Fund (CAF) Act, they demand. 

The background to this appeal is that the CAF Act was passed in Parliament in July 2016 approving the release of more than Rs 40,000 crores to be spent on afforestation projects in different parts of the country. 

Every time forest land is diverted for non-forest purposes like mining or industry, the user agency (government or corporate) is supposed to "afforest" an area of the same size of the forests that were diverted. 

The CAF Act facilitates the use of funds paid by such user agencies in implementing afforestation projects in lieu of forest area that was diverted. The same environmental groups had raised concerns in 2016 about how the CAF Act completely sidelines consent from and consultation with forest dwellers, it also doesn't recognize the rights over forest resources guaranteed to forest dwellers under the scheduled tribes and other traditional forest dwellers (recognition of forest rights) act. 

Following protests by environmental groups, then environment minister, Anil Madhav Dave had assured that rules for the implementation of the CAF Act will be drafted soon and would provide for necessary consultation with the Gram Sabha. 

"Despite an explicit assurance to Parliament from the environment and forests minister, till date no action has been taken to ensure that this law respects the legal rights of forest dwellers. Indeed, objections were strongly voiced against the CAF Bill both by organisations outside Parliament and by the opposition in the Rajya Sabha. The opposition parties moved amendments in the Rajya Sabha to include specific provisions to safeguard rights of scheduled tribes and other forest dwellers recognized under the Forest Rights Act," the petition reads. 

But the rules on implementation of the CAF act under section 30 of the act haven't been notified yet. "Meanwhile, compensatory afforestation and coerced relocation from protected areas using CAMPA funds is continuing at a rapid pace. Reports from different parts of the country indicate that the state forest departments are forcibly undertaking afforestation in both individual and community forest lands, including lands over which titles under the forest rights act have been granted," the petition adds. 

Those who have endorsed the petition include conservation scientists, human rights activists and groups such as Vasundhara, Kalpavriksha, World Rainforest Movement, Ashoka Trust for Research in Ecology and the Environment (ATREE) and others. 

Digmbar Pradhan, a tribal leader from Pidikia village in Odisha said, "Plantation of teak and other commercial species is of no use for us. These plantations through CAMPA funds over our forest land is restricting us from exercising our rights over forest land. We are strongly opposing these plantations." 

The petition is addressed to Prabhat Jha, chairman of petitions committee of Parliament of India requesting him to take up the matter with the ministry of environment, forests and climate change (MoEFCC). 

~The Times of India
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