Rules show governmental unwillingness to embrace tribal diversity and culture, they say
Experts have told Down To Earth (DTE) that the new guidelines issued by the Union Ministry of Tribal Affairs (MoTA) for conservation, management and sustainable use of community forest resources (CFR) on September 12, 2023, disempower Gram Sabhas (village assemblies) and shift control to the government.
They added that in the absence of any understanding about CFR’s progress, the country will undo progress made on forest governance.
MoTA issued fresh guidelines to “improve coordination” at the field level and ensure implementation of the Scheduled Tribes and Other Traditional Forest Dwellers (Recognition of Forest Rights) Act, 2006 or Forest Rights Act (FRA), 2006 in short.
The new guidelines focus on the formation of the District Level Committee (DLC) which entrusts Gram Sabhas or the community about who has rights over forest resources.
The central government has raised concerns and has sought clarity regarding multiple functionaries, authorities and departments that are involved in entrusting these rights under Section 3(1)(i) and Section 5 of FRA.
Section 5 underlines duties by empowering the holders of forest rights, Gram Sabhas and village level institutions for protection of wildlife, forests and biodiversity and ensuring that all neighbouring catchment areas, water sources and ecologically sensitive areas are well protected.
It also specifies that the habitat of tribals and other traditional forest dwellers should be protected from any destruction that would harm their culture and natural heritage.
The section guarantees that decisions are taken by the Gram Sabha to regulate access to CFR and prevent any activity that would cause harm to wildlife, forests and biodiversity.
“In 2019, a committee was formed to prepare a draft for the CFR guidelines under the chairmanship of MC Saxena. However, the draft of the guidelines sent to the tribal ministry, of which I was then a member, was never accepted,” Y Giri Rao, executive director of Bhubaneswar-based non-profit Vasundhara, told DTE.
Simultaneously, another committee was set up by the Union Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change. But the central government never revealed what the committee suggested.
“Section 5 empowers the Gram Sabha by including community-driven ideas based on local culture, people’s relationship with the forest and its protection,” he said.
“But the new guidelines have clearly not incorporated the suggestions that we had made and creates lot of confusion and conflicts for the provisions,” Rao noted.
MC Saxena told DTE that under the new guidelines, the committee that has drafted them will request MoTA to ‘name and shame’ states that openly flout FRA and its Rules by retaining monopoly control over some types of minor forest produce (MFP) such as tendu leaves, Sal seeds, etc.
He added that currently, the forest department controls transit permits. This also violates Rules under FRA, which state:
The transit permit regime in relation to transportation of MFP shall be modified and given by the Committee constituted under clause (e) of sub-rule (1) of Rule 4 or the person authorised by the Gram Sabha.
“If state governments can get away by openly flouting FRA and its Rules, what is the guarantee that they would even read the proposed guidelines?”
Rather than forming new guidelines, there is a need to draft committees to evaluate the progress of CFR, according to Saxena.
“There is a need to check the effects of CFR implementation since 2010 as there has been none since the programme was implemented,” he said.
Saxena noted that those allotted individual forest rights and CFR are two per cent and five per cent of the population respectively. “Before giving forest rights, the government mentioned 30 per cent of its forest land falling under CFR. In that sense, the amount of land owned by tribals continues to be minuscule,” he said.
Rao said the new guidelines call for constituting a DLC. But it is unclear as to who its members will be. “There are about 700 tribal communities which function in their unique way and work closely towards forest conservation. Sacred groves are a unique example of how communities relate forests with their culture,” he added.
He added the new guidelines seemed ‘government-driven’ rather than the community holding the ultimate rights.
“The new guidelines are undoing the progress made since Independence and show governmental unwillingness to embrace tribal diversity and culture,” Rao said.
Saxena pressed the need to check as to whether the quality of rights given to forest dwellers have improved. Has their income improved? “There is also a need to see if they continue to be forest resource collectors or are also helping manage and improve forest cover,” he said.
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