DEHRADUN: The Union ministry of environment, forests and climate change has said in a letter that forest land except 'protected areas' can be used 'temporarily' by any person, firm or organization, drawing the ire of activists.
The letter by Sandeep Sharma, assistant inspector general of forests, dated October 11, 2019, says, "I am further directed to say that the matter has been examined in detail by the Ministry and it has been decided that, temporary work in forest land which does not involve part of any Protected Area, breaking up or clearing of forest land or portion thereof, assigning by way of lease or otherwise to a firm, person or organization using such forest land temporarily, and dies not create any right over such forest land over such firm, person, organization, will not require prior approval of Central Government under the FC Act 1980."
The letter further adds that permission for any such activity cannot be granted by any officer of state forest departments under the rank of divisional forest officer.
Siddhanta Das, director general of forests, India, responding to queries, said, "A circular was issued in 2011 and a set of guidelines were framed. This was left out by mistake which has been included now."
Shekhar Pathak, a Padma Shree awardee based in Nainital, condemned the move, saying, "This is a direct violation of the act which was passed by the Parliament of this country to protect our forests. This will allow open abuse of the forests of this country as well as Uttarakhand."
Outlining the importance of the law, the activists, experts and lawyers pointed out that the act was brought in to curb unwarranted diversion of forest land to protect the forests of the country.
Ritwick Dutta, a lawyer from the Supreme Court who was the counsel for child activist Ridhima Pandey, in her petition said, "This communication of the MOEF&CC is illegal and contrary to the provisions of the Forest (Conservation) Act, 1980. The scope of the statutory law cannot be curtailed through a letter of a ministry."
He added, "The FC Act makes no distinction between temporary and permanent use of forest land. Once an activity is inside a forest land (RF&PF and even dictionary meaning forest areas) the provisions of the law will apply. The aim of the communication is to help the Rafting/beach Camping industry use the River Banks for setting up Beach Camps. Felling of trees is only one aspect. There are other forms of disturbances which can take place in forest land, even if no felling of trees takes place, like a DJ party or a marriage."
He further added, "Most disturbingly, resorts and hotels can have full access to RF and PF next to their land for various activities including parties and social events. The entire sanctity of the Forests and the Forest (Conservation) Act, 1980 has been undermined. On the face of it, the letter is illegal and violates both the FC Act as well as the Judgment of the NGT in Safe versus Union of India."
The activists said that before 1980 a lot of forest land diversions took place in the states given the influence of local politicians and other factories. The act was bright to save the forests from such interference and encroachment.
Tushar Dash, an independent researcher and expert on forest rights issues based in Bhubaneswar, said, "The MoEF letter on the temporary use of forest land is a major violation of the FCA 1980 and the Forest Rights Act. The letter is part of a series of similar such instructions issued earlier by the MoEF in violation of FRA. Orders have been passed to allow forest diversion for linear projects and for mineral prospecting, forest diversion in areas without "tribal populations", grant of mining leases, creation of land banks etc."
Dash further added, "Adivasi organisations and forest rights groups have voiced serious concerns against the dilution of FRA by major enactments, policies and orders of the MoEF in recent years such as the Compensatory Afforestation Fund Act, the draft National Forest Policy and guidelines for creation of land banks. The proposed amendments to IFA and the Supreme Court order for eviction of forest dwellers (which remain unchallenged by the govt) have further posed serious threats to the rights of millions of Adivasis and forest dwellers," said Dash.
A senior woman forest officer from Uttarakhand termed the move as "putting the last nail in the coffin of the act even without attempting to put the first nail".
"This simply means that anyone can put up tents across the borders of Corbett Tiger Reserve and do whatever they want. There is as much wildlife in Ramnagar forest division as in Corbett. There will be anarchy and flora and fauna is going to be affected," said the woman officer who did not want to be named.
The letter of the ministry dated October 11, 2019 reiterates the same directions from an earlier letter by it on October 7, 2019.
"The letter simply means that anyone can conduct a wedding in Auli if the DFO allows. No approval of the central or state government at any higher level is required. This is an unprecedented dilution of the law," added Pathak.
In June, this year, a public interest litigation was filed in the Uttarakhand high court opposing the wedding of the children of the Gupta brothers, Ajay Gupta and Atul Gupta, in Auli in Chamoli district at a cost of up to Rs 200 crore.
The court, on Monday, has asked the state government and its officials to file a reply in the matter. Earlier, the HC had directed to deposit Rs 3 crore prior to the wedding functions from June 18-22, 2019 to restore damages afterwards.