• Fatema Kinkhabwala

We can’t (fo)rest anymore

On October 4th, 2019, a wave of decimation took over the bustling city of Mumbai. A crowd of young and old, destitute and affluent, ordinary and celebrity gathered at the site of environmental annihilation that it was previously aloof to. The Mumbai Metro Rail Corp had begun the process of felling thousands of Aarey Milk Colony’s lush trees for a seemingly conventional car shed. To understand the politics behind the entire episode one must take a walk down memory lane.

In august 2019, the decision to go ahead with the felling of around 3000 trees was approved by the Mumbai Metro Rail Corporation Limited. What hasn’t been highlighted however is the fact that there was a panel of experts from the tree authority who submitted a report against the felling and had gross environmental concerns regarding the same. Furthermore the report even highlighted that the site of construction need not be in Aarey and relocation was achievable. Unsurprisingly, the report was tabled and buried, never to see the light of day. As the news broke out, it was met with optimal public outrage and individuals gathered at the site of their beloved forest to protest their disdain. This led to the arrest of 29 citizens and 100s were detained. Long story short, there were high court petitions to declare Aarey colony a forest, which failed, leading to a supreme court petition to order a stay on the felling. In conclusion by the time the stay was made effective, 2600 trees had already been cut and the damage was done. Justice delayed was indeed justice denied.

But this article is not about Aarey or the legal ramifications of the episode, but about something that has been lurking in the shadows. The hidden anti-environment campaign that is quietly seeping into society through devious legislation and pseudo development projects will be the bane of the 21st century environment movement in India. Lets begin with the Indian Forest (Amendment) Bill of 2019, which even though suppressed by state governments is an indication of the future.

Lets Get Legal

The draft Indian Forest (Amendment) Bill of 2019, circulated in March this year, aimed at re-establishing state power over forests at the cost of rights granted to the forest dwelling tribes and other forest dwellers under the Forest Rights Act of 2006 (FRA). Through this the central government seeked to arm itself with far greater power over forest resources than the colonial masters who brought in the Indian Forest Act of 1927 (IFA). This draft Bill seeked to replace the IFA.

But before we delve into the amendments, one must seek to understand the history involved in the manufacturing of the initial act.

History of the Indian Forest Act

  1. In the nineteenth century, the British wanted to undertake unhindered exploitation of timber, which required the government to assert its ownership over forests and suppress the traditional systems of community forest management that existed in most of the country.

  2. This had nothing to do with conservation; it was an effort to take control over trees, timber and vast areas of community land that had not and never had been forest.

  3. The 1927 Act remains India’s central forest legislation. These Acts empowered the government to declare its intention to notify any area as a reserved or protected forest, following which a “Forest Settlement Officer” supposedly would enquire into claims of rights (to land, forest produce, pasture, etc.) and decide whether to record people’s rights or not.

What are the Amendments?

  • The draft bill brings in a forest bureaucracy to manage "village forests" through a joint forest management committee (JFMC).

  • Though the concept of village forest exists in the original IFA, the FRA overrides all existing laws in recognizing and vesting rights over forest land and resources with forest dwelling communities, including in conservation and management of forests through their Gram Sabha, thus making JFMC defunct or redundant.

  • It says that even when a village forest belongs to the tribal community, use of timber and other forest produce, pasture rights and protections and management of these forests would be "in consultation with the forest department" (clause 22).

  • Further, it empowers the forest bureaucracy to record forest rights and gives it extraordinary power to take away ("commute") individual and community rights for declaring "reserve forest" by paying compensation. Taken together, these provisions give a veto to forest bureaucracy and tantamount to extinction of forest rights.

We may not have had our version of the Amazon fires or the Australian Bushfires, but we cannot wait till disaster comes knocking on our doorstep. Aarey was our window before devastation occurs, so here’s what we need to do.

What you need to do?

  1. We must maintain constant vigilance and stay updated about any new development activities that involve a hefty environmental cost. One can stay updated through various news outlets like the ‘quint’ or ‘brut’ or Instagram pages dedicated to the same. Here are some sources (not exhaustive by any means) for the aforementioned:

  • @saveourcoastmumbai & @aaranpatel: Two pages that employ detailed, and diverse lenses of analysis to explore the development of the Mumbai Coastal Road Project.

  • @millenials_for_environment: A student run organisation that provides detailed information about the environment (especially developmental projects) in India.

  • @green_humour: Informative cartoons that provide detailed information about development projects (amongst other topics) in India.

  1. As a member of the youth the easiest way to take action is to inform. Spread the word amongst your peers, post about it on your Instagram stories, talk about it on your WhatsApp groups. Start a conversation at the dinner table about it. When the youth starts taking notice of an atrocity in large numbers, the police, our judiciary and government will have to take cognisance of it even if it's just to save face. The best example of this in recent times is the ‘bois locker room’ controversy wherein legal action was pursued only due to the mass uproar on social media.

  2. Once you’ve completed the process of decimating information, it’s the time to organize. Try to find groups or members of environmental clubs who are organizing peaceful protests and join them. Sign petitions for the same, it doesn’t take a single penny to do it and barely a minute of your day. You can make a change.org account. Once your account is made they will send you various social petitions on your email. One might think that protests or petitions don’t lead to significant change, but it would benefit you to know that if it wasn’t for a letter to the supreme court from students advocating for the trees in Aarey to be protected or the numerous individuals who made a human chain and diligently stood for what they believed in, Aarey would have been just another tragedy soon to be forgotten.