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Govt move sparks debate

- Draft Arunachal forest act ignores community concerns

Itanagar, July 1: Arunachal Pradesh ranks second only to Madhya Pradesh in total forest cover with 67,410 square km of land being covered by forest.

The extent of forests in the state traverses across the Himalayas in the west to the Patkai in the east and only yesterday the Union ministry of environment and forests decided to exempt environmental clearance for road projects within 100km of the state’s international border. Therefore, it should come as a surprise that the state does not have its own forest act.

In May this year, the Draft Arunachal Pradesh Forest Act (APFA) was formulated by a committee constituted by the state environment and forest department. The draft act has been uploaded on the department website for people to give suggestions and comments.

So far, the state has been following the Assam Forest Regulation, 1891 (Amendment) Bill, 2005, for administration of its forest resources. Critics of the draft, however, feel that it is no different from the previous act and does not fulfil the state’s unique set up — where large areas of forests have either been owned privately and passed on hereditarily or maintained by any of the 26 major tribal communities of the state.

The director of the state’s Horticulture Research & Development Mission, Egam Basar, said the draft is a “copy-paste of colonial laws and marginalises tribal customs”.

“Tribal customary laws have dictated forest ownership for centuries,” said Basar, adding that “there should be no interference from the government.” However, Basar is not against regulation of forests in the state. Far from it, he said the focus of the act should be to protect community forests since “government-declared reserved forests are already under protection”.

The draft act, which empowers government-appointed forest settlement officers to decide forest ownership and their status as protected land, has not gone down well amidst concerns that traditional forest land will be snatched away from locals. Basar, who is also a member of Sustainable Development Forum, said, “If forest ownership rights are not properly recognised, the government will invite Posco to the state” in reference to the South Korean firm’s clearance given for its steel project in Odisha. Those who drafted the act though, disagree.

Chief conservator of forests R.S.C. Jayaraj said, “The government has no right to forcefully take over anyone’s land and declare it as a reserved forest.”

“Forest settlement officers will be appointed to determine the status of forests and their ownership,” Jayaraj said. He also added that the draft act specifically calls for FSOs to be non-forest department officials “for the sake of neutrality”. On the notable absence of community-owned forests of the state, Jayaraj said, “Such special provisions are not part of forest acts of any state”, adding that all state-specific acts have to confer with the Indian Forest Act, 1927.

“But we are still at the early stages and have taken note of suggestions to include separate clause/chapter to deal with the subject of community forests,” he said.


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