On the wrong side of rights

Tribal af­fairs min­istry ob­jects to Ma­ha­rash­tra's Vil­lage For­est Rules that vi­o­late the For­est Rights Act. Other min­istries pres­sure it to back­track


THE FOR­EST Rights Act,which em­pow­ers tribal peo­ple and for­est dwellers to have ab­so­lute rights over their forests, has started a bat­tle at the Cen­tre.Two Union min­istries— ru­ral de­vel­op­ment and pan­chay­ati raj; and en­vi­ron­ment, forests and cli­mate change— are putting pres­sure on the Union Min­istry of Tribal Af­fairs to with­draw its stand up­hold­ing the land­mark law en­acted in 2006.

The prob­lem started in March this year, when the Ma­ha­rash­tra gov­ern­ment is­sued the Ma­ha­rash­tra Vil­lage For­est Rules of 2014, which sought to make com­mu­ni­ties de­clare forests un­der their ju­ris­dic­tions as “vil­lage forests”. On Au­gust 13, the Union tribal af­fairs min­istry asked the state to put on hold the rules be­cause they were “prima fa­cie” in vi­o­la­tion of the For­est Rights Act (fra).

Six days later, Nitin Gad­kari, the min­is­ter of ru­ral de­vel­op­ment and pan­chay­ati raj wrote to tribal af­fairs min­is­ter, Jual Oram, re­quest­ing him to with­draw his min­istry’s ob­jec­tions against the Ma­ha­rash­tra Vil­lage For­est Rules. In his let­ter, Gad­kari said that the rules were em­pow­er­ing the vil­lage pan­chay­ats in the state and that the state politi­cians were in favour of their im­ple­men­ta­tion. He re­quested Oram to dis­cuss the mat­ter with the Union en­vi­ron­ment and forests min­istry as the rules were is­sued un­der a law ad­min­is­tered by the min­sitry. Then on Au­gust 29, Union en­vi­ron­ment min­is­ter Prakash Javadekar wrote to Oram with the same re­quest.

“It is shock­ing that Gad­kari, whose min­istry has noth­ing to do with the forests or tribal com­mu­ni­ties has been writ­ing such let­ters to the tribal af­fairs min­istry,” says tribal rights ac­tivist Madhu Sarin.

New line of de­fence

Ac­tivists say that the new rules, which emerge from the colo­nial In­dian For­est Act (ifa), 1927, are the Ma­ha­rash­tra gov­ern-

ment’s lat­est at­tempt to stop for­est dwellers from ben­e­fit­ting un­der fra.

Un­der the new rules, the for­est depart­ment sets the terms for com­mu­ni­ties’ ac­cess and use of vil­lage for­est re­sources.The vil­lage for­est man­age­ment com­mit­tees of the gram sab­has, to be con­sti­tuted un­der the rules, are sup­posed to work un­der the su­per­vi­sion of for­est of­fi­cials. Even the ex­trac­tion of mi­nor for­est pro­duce such as bam­boo can only be done by the com­mu­ni­ties as per the work­ing plan of the for­est depart­ment.

This is in con­tra­ven­tion of the com­mu­nity for­est rights pro­vi­sions of fra which give ab­so­lute au­thor­ity to the gram sabha (vil­lage coun­cil) over forests un­der the com­mu­nity’s ju­ris­dic­tion.

The new rules come at a time when sev­eral vil­lages in the tribal-dom­i­nated re­gions such as Gad­chi­roli dis­trict have got cfr ti­tles and are ben­e­fit­ting by trad­ing in bam­boo from the com­mu­nity forests, which were con­trolled by the for­est depart­ment be­fore the fra was en­acted (see ‘Ma­jor bat­tle over mi­nor pro­duce’, Down To Earth, Novem­ber 1-15, 2010 and ‘Bam­boo ris­ing’, Down To Earth, Jan­uary 16-31,2013).Many more vil­lages in the state are also in the process of claim­ing cfr sta­tus to har­vest and trade in bam­boo and tendu leaves.

“It is pre­cisely to sub­vert this process (of fra) that the for­est depart­ment has come up with the vil­lage for­est rules,” says Mo­han Hirabai Hi­ralal of non-profit Vrik­shami­tra, which has been as­so­ci­ated with the cfr move­ment in Gad­chi­roli.

In the past, for­est com­mu­nites have de­manded im­plemeta­tion of the 150-year-old pro­vi­sons be­cause they were the only pro­vi­sions re­lat­ing to com­mu­nity for­est rights be­fore fra was en­acted. But the for­est deaprt­ments re­fused to im­ple­ment them (see ‘Un­will­ing states’).

Des­per­ate mea­sures

Ac­cord­ing to the new rules, vil­lage forests will be no­ti­fied only in the ar­eas that are not cov­ered un­der fra or where com­mu­ni­ties have not got cfr ti­tles. But the depart­ment has also sub­tly put a clause in the rules say­ing that “any gram sabha may, suo moto, make a decision, by res­o­lu­tion, to adopt th­ese rules”. On Septem­ber 17,the state gov­ern­ment put the suo moto clause on stay, say­ing there was a con­fu­sion over its im­pact on cfr.

C R Bi­joy of Cam­paign for Sur­vival and Dig­nity says, “Through th­ese rules, the for­est depart­ment wanted to do two things. One, to de­clare ar­eas that are yet to re­ceive cfr as vil­lage forests. This is fright­en­ing be­cause only a hand­ful of ar­eas have been brought un­der cfr so far. And two, through the suo moto clause they wanted to re­gain its con­trol over com­mu­nity forests.”

The ac­tivist’s fear is not com­pletely un­founded. On this In­de­pen­dence day, the state for­est depart­ment dis­trib­uted draft res­o­lu­tions to gram sab­has and asked them to pass the same in the meet­ing so that they can be in­cluded as vil­lage forests. The vil­lages that re­ceived the draft res­o­lu­tion in­cluded sev­eral cfr vil­lages in­clud­ing Mendha Lekha, the first vil­lage in the coun­try to get the cfr ti­tle in 2009. “Even though the suo moto clause has been put on hold after protests from com­mu­ni­ties, the dan­ger of no­ti­fy­ing new ar­eas un­der Vil­lage For­est Rules still re­mains, ”says Bi­joy.

A K Sax­ena, prin­ci­pal chief con­ser­va­tor of forests, Ma­ha­rash­tra ,de­fends the rules by ar­gu­ing that cfr and Vil­lage Forests Rules are two dif­fer­ent pro­vi­sions un­der two dif­fer­ent Acts.

“There is no re­la­tion­ship be­tween the two. Be­sides, if you have read the rules, you must have seen that it is clearly men­tioned that the rules will not be ap­pli­ca­ble in cfr ar­eas, ”Sax­ena told Down To Earth.

Ac­tivists point out that the vil­lage for­est pro­vi­sion has been mis­used in other states. “In Ut­tarak­hand, for­est of­fi­cials were made a part of the van pan­chay­ats, the tra­di­tional com­mu­nity forestry in­sti­tu­tions in the state, through a no­ti­fi­ca­tion on vil­lage for­est rules in 2001. Grad­u­ally the van pan­chay­ats were made in­ef­fec­tive. A sim­i­lar thing was done in Odisha in the 1980s, ”says Sarin.

Tushar Dash of Odisha-based non-profit Va­sund­hara that works on tribal rights, fears that if Ma­ha­rash­tra pulls it off, other states will take the same route.

“For­est de­part­ments in almost all states are al­ready look­ing for dif­fer­ent ways to re­sist the im­ple­men­ta­tion of cfr be­cause they want to re­tain their con­trol over forests,” he says.

The Ma­ha­rash­tra Vil­lage For­est Rules, 2014, are in con­tra­ven­tion of the For­est Rights Act, 2006,

that gives ab­so­lute au­thor­ity to the gram sabha over forests un­der a com­mu­nity's ju­ris­dic­tion

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