Need to Fight for Our Rights, Safeguard Land and Resources: The Naga Rising

Kohima: Forest Conservation (Amendment) Bill will empower Centre to use any part of Nagaland in name of national security

BY | Tuesday, 1 August, 2023

The Naga Rising on 18th May 2023 (copy attached) submitted a written objection to the Joint Parliamentary Committee on the Forest Conservation (Amendment) Bill of 2023 when the Committee invited public suggestions on the Bill. In complete disregard to the various concerns raised from different quarters, the controversial Bill was recently passed in Lok Sabha, which will have far-reaching consequences.

This demonstrates that the central government is hellbent on taking away the rights of indigenous people and tribals over their land and resources. At the same time, it only strengthens our resolve to continue our fight to protect our land and resources, recognizing the responsibility that we have borrowed our land and resources from our future generations,

The Bill proposes to exempt forest land situated within 100 km along the international borders to be used for linear projects of strategic importance concerning national security. The central government can use any part of forest land that falls under the 100-km exemption for any project by giving it a national security tag.

The Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change’s clarification to the concerns on the 100-km exemption confirms that when it comes to national security vs indigenous tribal rights, the former will prevail. The Ministry stated that the clause is “not generic” and would only be given to strategic projects approved by the Ministry of Home Affairs and Ministry of Defense. It also added that the permissions given would “be need-based, i.e., may be used within 5 kilometers or 10 kilometers.”

Nowhere in the Bill does it mention that the 100-km exemption will not be applicable in certain states or that it could be less than the 100-km. Therefore, in whatever way it is interpreted, it means that the whole territory of states such as Nagaland will come under the purview of the Bill. As the environmental lawyer, Ritwick Dutta rightly observes: “Either it is in the law, or it is not. Ultimately, what will be debated in court is not what the Ministry said in the Committee’s report, but the law.”

If the Bill becomes law, it would tantamount to a breach of faith as it violates Article 371A of the Constitution. The central government conveniently forgets that Article 371A was an outcome of a political agreement. If constitutional rights emerging from political agreements can be unilaterally altered by one of the parties to the agreement, the message is clear, the central government does not respect any political agreement.

In the name of national security, the draconian Armed Forces Special Powers Act (AFSPA) – a law that protects the security forces to kill – has long been enforced in Nagaland and other parts of Northeastern region giving special powers to the Indian armed forces.

In the same way, the Forest Conservation (Amendment) Bill will empower the central government to use any part of the territory of Nagaland in the name of national security. Till today, it was about our lives, now it is about our land and resources and tomorrow it will be about our culture and traditions. The current ruling dispensation in Delhi has been relentless in its effort in taking away our rights.

For indigenous people, our identity and culture are deeply rooted in our land and forest. If we don’t fight for our rights today, we will lose our land and resources forever. One day, our children will ask why we remained silent when our rights over land and resources were taken away from us.

Issued in Public Interest by The Naga Rising

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