In a controversial move, the Maharashtra Forest Department has asked gram sabhas, including the ones that have been granted community forest rights (CFR) under the Forest Rights Act, to pass a resolution accepting the status of forest village under the newly notified forest village rules of the Indian Forest Act (IFA) 1927.
The department has issued drafts of the resolution to all gram sabhas, asking them to pass it during the forthcoming meeting on August 15. The resolution seeks to reinstate the joint forest management committee (JFM), rendered redundant by FRA, as the deciding authority on forest management in the village; and binds the gram sabha to take decisions regarding forest management works only under the guidance of the department and the local deputy conservator of forests (DFO). One of the key clauses to the effect is that an official of the rank of forest guard will be a technical member of the committee. Another clause makes the signature of the technical member and the permission of the DFO mandatory for withdrawal of funds for forest-related works. Villages which accept this resolution will be given the status of forest village under the IFA.
Mendha Lekha takes up the cudgels
The move, it was learnt, was carried out in secrecy, but the facts came out after Devaji Tofa, veteran forest rights activist from village Mendha Lekha in Gadchiroli district made the draft public and wrote to the Review Committee for the changes in the implementation of the Tribal Sub Plan opposing the move. He has demanded that funds under Tribal Sub Plan be transferred directly to gram sabhas.
The step has been greeted with protests from forest rights groups all over the country, who say that the forest department is taking advantage of the ignorance of forest dwellers and using the rules to nullify all the rights gained by communities after years of struggle.
Forest department’s action illegal
The action of the department is in violation of the gazette notification of the Maharashtra Village Forest Rules of May 13, 2014. The very first section says that the rules are not applicable to forests where communities have got CFR rights, forests that are covered under FRA and Scheduled Areas where Panchayat Extension in Scheduled Areas (PESA) of 1996 applies. Most of the villages located in forests in Maharashtra fall in areas covered under PESA, and all forest dwellers are covered under FRA.
“Forest Department is taking advantage of a clause in the rules which says that villages even in PESA and FRA areas can pass a resolution and accept these rules,” says veteran forest rights activist Madhu Sarin. “The subversive intent of this became evident from the fact that the resolution essentially involves handing over all their powers to forest officials. The intent is to nullify all rights and authority vested in gram sabhas by the FRA, something which is patently illegal as legal rights cannot be taken away like this. But given poor awareness among villagers, the forest department can enforce it.”
Mohan Hirabai Hiralal, veteran forest rights activist from Gadchiroli in Maharashtra, says despite the said clause, the forest department has no right to circulate pre-fabricated resolutions. “The clause is voluntary. If a village finds it advantageous to get forest village status, it can do so on its own. The department has no right to instruct gram sabhas to pass resolutions. The move is clearly uncalled for and shows the department’s nefarious intent of grabbing all rights that people have earned through decades of struggle.”
Forest village rules: Why now?
Rights groups also question the propriety of framing forest village rules at this juncture, when FRA has already given rights to village communities. “The IFA, along with its village forest clause in section 28, has been in existence since the law was enacted in 1927,” says Neema Pathak Broome of non-profit Kalpavriksha. “What is not clear is why the rules are being formulated now in 2014 when the national Act has been in place since 1927. Considering that prior to FRA there were often demands to formulate these rules from civil society groups as the provision was then the only provision in forest laws of India which handed over management rights to the village communities.”
Hirabai Hiralal says that while the government is well within the law to frame rules, the manner and timing of the rules shows that this long-neglected provision is now being used to scuttle rights gained by communities after years of struggle.
Rules could start unfair competition
Pathak Broome says one of the concerns regarding framing of these rules in the present circumstances is that they may form the basis of an unfair competition between the rules on one hand and CFR and PESA on the other. “Forest Department is very much empowered to start such a competition by making more resources or incentives available to JFM committees, so that gram sabhas are compelled to adopt these rules.”
Similar situations may rise in other parts of the country as well, with many other states framing state forest laws or updating village forest rules. “Arunachal Pradesh came up with a very bad state forest Act that we have opposed. In addition, in Andhra Pradesh, the government has said that CFRs will be given to the JFM committees and in Madhya Pradesh, the government has said that committee under section 4e should be the same as JFM and Biodiversity Management Committees,” she says.
Pathak Broome informs that rights groups have taken up this issue with the government and the department has given assurance that the said resolution will be withdrawn. Senior forest officials could not be reached for comment.