Nagaland finds itself at a crossroads as the contentious Forest (Conservation) Amendment Act 2023 secured the President’s assent after it was earlier passed by both Houses of the Parliament. The act’s implications have ignited diverse perspectives, with Chief Minister Neiphiu Rio advocating for a nuanced approach while vocal dissenters raise fervent concerns.
Nagaland Chief Minister Neiphiu Rio on Wednesday alleviated fears, affirming that the Forest (Conservation) Amendment Act 2023 is “not a threat to Nagas.” His assurance stemmed from his view that over 95% of Nagaland’s forest cover belongs to individuals or communities, with the government claiming a mere 5%.
Rio viewed that “Article 371 (A) gives special protection to Nagas on land and its resources” and, therefore, he feels that it is “not a threat to the state.” Nonetheless, he added that “further study on its implication” will be done and, hence, shall not make any reaction for now.
Yet, while Chief Minister Rio urged calm, Naga People’s Front Legislature Party leader Kuzholuzo Nienu has already contested the Act as “anti-constitutional” and “anti-tribal” and has urged the state government to summon an emergency Assembly session to reject the Act.
Quite contrary to the CM’s stand, the Ao Senden, the apex tribal body of the Ao Nagas, lent its voice to the discourse, labeling the Act “very unfortunate” and expressing deep concern.
Of particular contention were the proposed exemptions, including the 100km exception for environmental clearance for forests along international borders to be used for construction of strategic linear projects of national importance, and those concerning national security, which the Ao Senden claimed had “potential to cause unrest” in the northeastern states in general and Nagaland in particular.
“The amended Act will leave our lands without any protection from arbitrary diversion and decisions of the Union government as it excludes obtaining prior consent from village councils and local district authorities,” the Ao Senden held. “This amended Act will speed up the destruction of forests in the rich, biodiverse regions of the northeast and the rest of the country without a doubt,” the Ao Senden cautioned.
However, more than an environmental or social issue, the Ao Senden viewed that the issue is more pressing because, it said, “For the Naga people, land belongs to the people.”
“Every Naga village has its own sovereign authority over its land,” the Ao Senden highlighted the sanctity of land for the Naga people. The apex body stressed that decisions made in Delhi without local consent undermine democratic principles, terming them “undemocratic and unacceptable.”
Further, the Ao Senden leveled allegations of majoritarian policies being imposed on minority communities by the central government and expressed concern that the Forest (Conservation) Amendment Act 2023 and “other such arbitrary laws” indicated a larger pattern of shift towards unitary governance, undermining the principles of Indian federalism.
In response, the Ao Senden firmly urged the Government of Nagaland to convene a special Assembly session, employing Article 371(A) to reject the implementation of the Forest (Conservation) Amendment Act 2023 within the state.
It can be noted that the NDA government has been defending the bill stating that it intends to extend basic amenities to tribal populations and integrate them into the developmental mainstream.
Union Minister for Environment, Forest and Climate Change & Labour and Employment, Bhupender Yadav in his Indian Express article, “Forest Conservation Bill: An encompassing green”, wrote, “This small exemption will pave the way for tribal children, especially the girl child, to get access to education. It will allow pregnant women and elderly people to access hospitals. It will weaken the hold of extremism as forest dwellers will join the developmental mainstream.”
Yadav debunked the notion of leaving the border areas “undeveloped so that the advancing enemy would find it difficult to make inroads.” Stating that the warfare has seen a paradigm shift, he advocated for their development to facilitate rapid deployment of forces.
“India stands committed to extending to her soldiers, guarding the country in sub-zero temperatures, the road infrastructure needed for the transportation of weapons, protective gear and ration,” Yadav wrote.
The Minister clarified that exemptions are limited to forest areas near borders, safeguarded by stringent checks and balances.