By Arushi Sharma
On Wednesday, Parliament amended a law to exclude bamboo from the definition of ‘tree’ as given under the Indian Forest Act. The Indian Forest (Amendment) Bill 2017 was passed in the Lok Sabha on December 20, 2017, amid fierce opposition. The bill—presented as pro-poor and pro-tribal—was introduced by Dr Harsh Vardhan, Minister of Environment, Forest, and Climate Change on December 18, 2017.
What does the change mean?
Laws relating to the transit of forest-produce and associated duties and levies come under the purview of the Indian Forest Act (IFA), 1927. Since bamboo was included in the ‘trees’ category under the Act, the felling and transit of bamboo required permits, which had a significant effect on rural farmers and the tribal population. However, taxonomically, bamboo is actually a type of grass.
The amending bill replaces an ordinance promulgated on November 23 that eliminated the requirement for a permit to use bamboo grown on non-forest land. Hailing the importance of the bill, Dr Vardhan said, “It took us 90 years to do it. It was long awaited in India. We cannot allow tribals and poor farmers of the country to suffer.”
One caveat in the deregulation, however, is that it will only apply to non-forest land. According to former Environment Minister, Jairam Ramesh, this distinction made the Bill fruitless. “94 percent of bamboo produced in India is from forest areas. You are bringing a Bill to deal with the interests of the six percent. This is not pro-tribal, pro-poor or pro-Northeast. This will benefit only the private industry.”
The interests of Indian farmers
India is the second largest producer of bamboo, after only China, yet it resorts to importing bamboo from China and Vietnam. Thus, the deregulation is meant to boost the planting of bamboo by forest dwellers, farmers and tribal peoples. The hope is to increase wages in some rural communities. Dr Vardhan, quoting the ‘Arthashastra’, described bamboo as green gold and the poor man’s timber. However, the value of further bamboo cultivation on private lands is questionable, and it is of questionable use as fodder.
The opposition response was sceptical, noting that the states were not consulted beforehand and that the ordinance involves a loss of decision making power for the state administrations. D Raja, Pradeep Tamta, Viplove Thakur, and Tathagata Satpathy were some of the members who spoke on the opposing side.
Another argument raised by the opposition was that the Act tramples upon the rights of the Gram Sabhas to use community forest resources. Moreover, forest dwellers have already been receiving dedicated grants for bamboo and other products like tendu patta under the Forest Rights Act (FRA), 2006. In practice, however, forest officials have been known to deny the right to harvest and transport bamboo, citing the IFA. This issue will remain unresolved, however, as the act does not deregulate forest areas.
Quick-fix versus long-term interest
A recent op-ed in The Hindu suggested that amending the IFA to remove its contradictions with the FRA would have been a better move for the long-term. This suggestion is supported by the experience in Maharashtra state, where a mini-revolution in forest-based livelihoods was achieved by amending the IFA and other state acts to exclude bamboo and tendu patta from state control.
The lack of consultation with stakeholders and the haste in issuing the ordinance are reflective of the bureaucratic approach the government has taken on the matter. Unfortunately, the battle cannot be won by merely removing an anomaly in the IFA. The present need is for a holistic review of the issues involved and for the government to build a transparent system for controlling the country’s forest resources.
Featured Image Source: Flickr
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