Top forest officials and National Forest Rights Act Committee engage in a war of words
Top forest officials and members of the National Forest Rights Act Committee are on a collision course after the panel submitted its report to the government and stated that the Act was not implemented in its true spirit.
A war of words ensued after the panel, formed by the environment and tribal affairs ministries to review implementation of the Act, criticised the forest department and the tribal affairs ministry.
Non-official members of the committee accused Director General of Forests P J Dilip Kumar of misreading the report and said: “The DGF’s reading of what constitutes the non-tribal forest-dwellers is not as per the Act. He wrongly reports what the committee has said”.
While Kumar said that the panel recommended that government should not insist traditional forest-dwellers to have prior occupation of 75 years to claim forestland, the panel members said that prior occupation of 75 years applies to non-scheduled tribes to recognise them as other traditional forest-dwellers. It does not apply to their specific claims. The members have written to the minister of environment and forests Jairam Ramesh and tribal affairs minister Kantilal Bhuria criticising the DGF for not taking action as per the panel’s recommendations.
The DGF, on the other hand, has slammed the recommendations (See ‘Forest department’s snub’, Down To Earth, February 1-15). Accusing the panel of threatening forest officials in the field, V K Bahuguna, president of the Indian Forest Services (IFS) Association, sent a memorandum to the environment ministry. It stated: “Opposing illegal allotment of forest land by forest officials should not be construed as an impediment in the implementation of the Act.” IFS officers fully support lawful implementation of the Act, he said.
“It has been reported by some principle chief conservators of the forest that the committee members asked officials not to care for evidence while transferring forest land,” Bahuguna stated in the memorandum.
He also pointed a finger at the 10 non-official members of non-profits saying governance of forests should not be influenced by them. He accused them of having no accountability over forest resources conservation and branding the IFS officials as villains for their vested interests.
According to the committee members, the DGF’s explanation that villagers have not claimed community forest rights because they have such rights already contradicts the evidence collected by the committee in its field visits. “The implementing agencies have made no effort to spread awareness about the provisions of the community forest rights. Also, the forest department is unwilling to transfer control of power to manage the forest resources to the communities,” the letter stated.
Besides, the members said, the DGF failed to respond to the report’s recommendations. It recommended the environment ministry to check illegal eviction of tribals from forests, and fresh encroachments on forestland. Besides, it said implementation of the Act in proposals to divert forest land must be ensured, and suggested steps to make forest-dwellers primary beneficiaries of non-timber forest produce by de-nationalising them.
Though the environment minister appreciated the findings of the panel, he has called a meeting of senior forest officials with National Forest Rights Act committee chairman N C Saxena in March end. Saxena has been asked to give a presentation on the committee’s report.
Meanwhile, the ministry of tribal affairs has also not given its response to the committee’s recommendations. When asked, Bachittar Singh, joint secretary in the ministry, said they were still reading it. He also put the blame of non-implementation of the recommendations on the state governments. “We are there to guide and facilitate them. If they find any difficulty in the implementation, they may report us and we will help them,” said Singh.
Saxena, however, sees a bleak future of the report’s recommendations. “I doubt if officials in the ministries are even reading the report and fear it will be dumped and forgotten soon,” he said.