CAG slams action as being tantamount to misuse of powers by forest department and against spirit of Forest (Conservation) Act
The Madhya Pradesh government tried to pass off a lodge it built in Pench Tiger Reserve as a community centre, under Forest Rights Act (FRA), the Comptroller and Auditor General (CAG) reported September 22.
The structure, in Karamjhiri forest village in Seoni district, came up under Section 3.2 of The Scheduled Tribes and Other Traditional Forest Dwellers (Recognition of Forest Rights) Act, 2006, also known as FRA.
But it was “clearly meant for use by tourists, as such facilities do not form part of any community activity in a forest village,” according to a recent CAG report.
Section 3.2 of the Act provides for the construction of infrastructural facilities like schools, roads, etc for forest dwellers.
The lodge, comprising four suites, a lounge and a dining hall, charged Rs 2,500-5,500 per night.
The structure, was initially planned as a home stay, under the ‘Abhinav Yojana’ scheme by the Madhya Pradesh Ecotourism Board.
The scheme proposed to select 10 houses of Karmajhiri for the construction of a room and allied facilities, using bamboo and other natural construction materials. The Board later permitted the construction a community centre, instead of a home stay, given the time involved in getting permission from the Union environment ministry, the report added.
However, what was finally created was a commercial lodge, that the CAG found to be “tantamount to misuse of powers by the forest department and against the spirit of the Forest (Conservation) Act, 1980” or FCA.
It was an unauthorised use of public funds for an unlawful construction at a cost of Rs.1.02 crore, the document said.
Experts also pointed out that infrastructural facilities under the FRA could only be built on the recommendation of the Gram Sabha.
“The proposals have to be passed by the Gram Sabha which has to say it needs those facilities for life and livelihood. If the Gram Sabha doesn’t need the facility, how can it be built under FRA?” Praveen Mote, who works on tribal rights issues in Protected Areas, said.
The project proponent has to give the proposal to the Gram Sabha according to the Union tribal ministry rules. After approval, the proposal goes to the forest ranger, followed by the divisional forest officer, Shomona Khanna, a Supreme Court advocate working on legal challenges faced by forest dwelling communities and Adivasis, said.
Amar Singh, an activist who works in and around Karmajhiri, pointed out that the Gram Sabha had given permission for constructing home stays in 10 households. But the forest department had, instead, created the lodge.
“The Gram Sabha has no role in its functioning and it is operated entirely by the forest department. The villagers had written to higher authorities regarding this, but they have not received any response,” Singh said.
Moreover, the village is to be relocated.
“A proposal for land diversion to rehabilitate the village under FCA was submitted by the field director in 2017. In 2019, another updated proposal was submitted by the field director,” Akshay Chettri, a researcher at Kalpavriksh, a Pune-based non-profit, said.
There was no question about the villagers demanding a community centre given that the village was to be relocated, Chettri added.
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