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Congress flips again, will oppose forest Bill in RS

July 24, 2016 12:47 IST

CAF Bill's fate to be decided on Monday

The Congress has yet again decided to oppose the National Democratic Alliance (NDA) government’s Compensatory Afforestation  (CAF) Bill, 2015, the fate of which will be decided in the Rajya Sabha on Monday.

“The understanding between the government and us (the Congress) does not stand anymore after the happenings in Parliament on Thursday and Friday. We will table the amendments against the Bill in the  Rajya Sabha and ask for a division of votes, regardless of whether we have the numbers or not,” Congress leader Jairam Ramesh told Business Standard.

The Congress stance on Friday was different from the one Ramesh had taken on behalf of the party earlier, after a meeting of the Congress leaders with Finance Minister Arun Jaitley, Environment Minister Anil Madhav Dave and other Bhartiya Janta Party (BJP) leaders. Ramesh, part of the meeting along with Digvijay Singh, had come out to announce that the two parties had struck a compromise: The Congress would not oppose the bill on the basis of an assurance from Dave on the floor of the house that its concerns would be incorporated later in the attendant rules of the new legislation.

The proposed legislation is meant to unlock a fund of Rs 40,000 crore (Rs 400 billion) to which about Rs 2,000-4,000 crore (Rs 20-40 billion) gets added every year on an average. When industries and miners chop the forests to set up units, they have to contribute to this fund at a fixed rate.

The money is meant to be used to do plantations elsewhere in the state in lieu of the forests lost. The fund was created in 2006 on the orders of the Supreme Court. Since then, nearly 90 per cent of the fund has accumulated and remained stuck with the central government instead of being reverted to states from where they were collected.

The Union government wants to pass the Bill to reverse this situation and ensure that 90 per cent of the funds go back to the states and get utilised for forestry purposes.

But, during the last monsoon session, the Congress, Left and other opposition parties such as Trinamool Congress and Janata Dal (United) found a reason to oppose the CAF Bill. They contended that the bill trampled over the rights of tribals granted under the Forest Rights Act (FRA).

Ramesh noted the common stance of these opposition parties. He said the FRA made the gram sabha (village council) the sole authority in charge of taking a final decision on what activities would be permitted on tribal and other forest  dwellers’ traditional forest lands.

He warned that previously, too, in many states, the tribals and state forest department had ended up in conflict, with the latter trying to impose plantations on traditional forestlands.

The CAF Bill does not acknowledge the role or the power of the tribal and forest dwellers’ gram sabha explicitly. The opposition, led by the Congress, asked that the Bill be amended. Many tribal rights organisations and non-government organsiations, too, demanded the same. The then environment minister Prakash Javadekar contended that saying so in black and white was not essential.

After an array of other reports on attempt to dilute the FRA provisions, media recently reported a story about the NDA refusing to act even as the BJP government in Chhattisgarh cancelled existing tribal rights under FRA to help the Adani Group mine the forests for coal. The Congress jumped at the occasion to call Narendra Modi’s government anti-tribal. It announced that Rahul Gandhi would soon launch a country-wide tour to drum-up support in favour of the FRA and against Modi government’s attempts to dilute it.

In the beginning of the monsoon session, on July 19, Congress President Sonia Gandhi told her Parliamentary Committee, “The government has snatched away the rights of Adivasis, Dalits and traditional forest dwellers under Forest Rights Act and is weakening environment rights.”

But the very next morning, media reported that the Congress and the BJP leaders had struck a deal on the CAF Bill. The Congress had agreed to do what it had once opposed — that the veto powers of tribals and others be reflected later in the rules that the government formulates to go with the CAF Bill and the government gives an assurance to this tune in Parliament. But by Friday night that mood in the Congress camp had changed again.

“We had a private member Bill on special status for Andhra Pradesh, which would have passed otherwise in the Rajya Sabha on Friday. But, they created the din to block it. Now, the agreement between us (on CAF Bill) is off. I don’t think we can work with this government. The happenings have cast a shadow even on the possible passage of goods and service tax,” Ramesh said.

Photograph: Katy Migiro/Reuters

Nitin Sethi in New Delhi