Aritra Bhattacharya| The News Minute| August 14, 2014| 9.00 am IST
The forest department in Maharashtra is engaged in backhanded attempts to take back control of forests courtesy the Maharashtra Village Forest Rules 2014, circumventing rights given to tribals under the Forest Rights Act (FRA) and the Panchayat (Extension to Scheduled Areas) Act (PESA).
Sources in the state’s Gadchiroli district said forest guards and round officers of the forest department are going around villages urging villagers to adopt a resolution during the 15 August gram sabha, stating they want the forests around their villages declared as “gramvan” or “village forest”. Hiraman Warkhedefrom Bharat Jan Andolan and Mohan Hiralal from Vrikshmitra in Gadchiroli said forest officials are trying to lure villagers to adopt the resolution, saying once their community-owned forest is declared a “gramvan”, members of their families will get jobs. Gram sabhas are also being told they will get Rs 3-4 lakh in cash once they adopt resolution, along with lanterns, LPG connections and timber, although the Maharashtra Village Forest Rules 2014 do not mention any of this.
“Forest department officials are providing villagers with a draft resolution and asking them to adopt it during the 15 August gram sabha,” says Mohan Hirabai Hiralal from Vrikshmitra.
The Maharashtra Village Forest Rules 2014 were put in place through a government resolution in May this year, and are supposed to cover areas where the FRA and PESA do not apply, but a clause in the rules states that it may apply in sections covered under FRA and PESA if the gram sabhas demand so. While the gram sabha enjoys ownership and management rights of community forests under the FRA, if the same forests were to be declared “gramvan” under the new rules, the gram sabha would lose its ownership rights and the forest would have to be managed in conjunction with the forest department.
Warkhede from Bharat Jan Andolan says this is a clear violation of the Central Acts. “The forest department has never been happy with tribals having ownership rights over forests, although it has helped regenerate forests and forest dwellers have on occasions earned Rs 800-900 per day through sale of minor forest produce. The forest department is now using this new rule to regain control over forests,” he says.
What has troubled activists like Warkhede further is that the rules state that if the forest department is unhappy with management of the “gramvan”, the joint forest management committee will be dissolved and control of the forest will go back entirely to the forest department. The rules do not provide for any scope of appealing against the forest department’s decision, and activists are wary that the rules will be used to take browbeat tribals. Over 3.5 lakh acres of forests in Gadchiroli district alone are owned and managed by village communities, and the number of community rights that have been awarded under the FRA are over 900. Gondia also has a large tracts of forest with many community rights under FRA.
Keshav Gurnule from SRISHTI (Society for Rural Initiatives in Sustainable and Holistic Themes in India)-Gadchiroli says the forest department’s campaign to declare forests as “gramvan” is focussed on areas that have community rights under FRA. “Timber is a lollypop the forest department is using to lure villagers…while FRA does not allow gram sabhas to fell trees and sell timber, forest officials are telling villagers they will be able to sell timber if their village is declared a ‘gramvan’,” says Gurnule.
A source who spoke on condition on anonymity since he is attached to the government said the forest department held a division level workshop in June, wherein forest guards were given verbal orders to cover every village in their jurisdiction and push gram sabhas to adopt “gramvan” resolutions.
Typically, forest officials are approaching the headmen in the villages with false promises as stated above and asking them to take the signature of all villagers on a register. “Officials are telling the headmen and their families that the forest department will attach the signature to the draft resolution at a later date,” says Gurnule from SRISHTI. His claim was corroborated by other activists working in the area whom this correspondent spoke to.
However, on Wednesday the Ministry of Tribal Affairs asked the Government of Maharashtra to keep the Maharashtra Village Forest Rules in abeyance as they in violation of the Forest Rights Act 2006.
In a letter written to the Chief Secretary, Government of Maharashtra, Joint Secretary in the Ministry of Tribal Affairs Manoj Kumar Pingua has stated that the Maharasshtra Village Forest Rules 2014, notified through a government resolution on 13 May this year prima facie violate the The Scheduled Tribes and Other Traditional Forest Dwellers (Recognition of Forest Rights) Act 2006 and the The Scheduled Tribes and Other Traditional Forest Dwellers (Recognition of Forest Rights) Rules 2006. Maharashtra has been asked to keep these rules in abeyance till Ministry of Tribal Affairs "examines it in consultation with legal counsels and conveys its views".
But activists, however, are working towards getting resolutions from gram sabhas asking for a ‘tharav’ (cancellation) of the new rules in areas covered under PESA and FRA. These resolutions ~ out of 1300-odd villages covered under PESA in Gadchiroli, around 20 have already signed them ~ will be sent to the governor, hoping he undoes the forest department’s doing