How The Government Is Subverting The forest Rights Act

The government of India views MFP rights as a means to curb Naxalism since the states most affected by Naxalism are also home to the maximum number of people dependent on forest produce. These states contribute more than 90 per cent of the MFP trade. Only 1.6 per cent of the 2.9 million claims approved under the Forest Rights Act recognise community rights; the rest recognise individual rights over forest dwellings and farms in forestland.

Two tribal villages in Gadchiroli district of Maharashtra—Mendha Lekha and Marda— savoured victory when they won community rights over their forest resources in August last year. The rights conferred under the Forest Rights Act of 2006 include the right to collect and sell minor forest produce (MFP). These include tendu leaves used in beedis, and bamboo that have high commercial value and were under the forest department’s control. Winning the right to manage these resources meant economic liberation to the two villages.

Soon, 60 other villages in the district filed claims for similar rights with the district authorities. Only eight were recognised, that too with riders. The document transferring rights to villages was ambiguous and imposed seven conditions; one of them was the residents could collect MFP but only for self-use. People realized they still had to battle forest officials unwilling to relinquish control over MFP. The expectations raised by Mendha Lekha and Marda winning forest rights were short-lived.

The forest department’s attempt to dilute the provisions of the Scheduled Tribes and other Traditional Forest Dwellers (Recognition of Forest Rights) Act, also known as Forest Rights Act (FRA), triggered protests. “Imposing conditions are against the letter and spirit of the Act,” said Roopchand Dhakne, a community leader of Ghati village in Gadchiroli. Besides rights over MFP, community rights include rights to pasture, water bodies and diversion of up to one hectare (ha) forestland for community infrastructure like schools. Gadchiroli district authorities have clubbed all these rights to show they cleared 193 community claims, but only 10 of these gave the right to collect MFP.

“This is a common trick being played across the country,” said Mohan Hirabai Hiralal of the NGO, Vrikshamitra, in Gadchiroli. He has helped villages file forest claims.

Opportunity lost

The trick came to light in August 2010 when the Union Ministry of Tribal Affairs, the nodal ministry for implementing FRA, released a status report. Of the 2.9 million claims settled under FRA, only 1.6 per cent (46,156) gave community rights and most of these did not include rights over MFP, the report said. All other titles were for agricultural land and dwellings in forestland. This is bad news for the 100 million forest dwellers in India who have been battling for community forest rights since colonial times.

“The focus has mostly been on giving individual pattas (for agricultural land and housing) while ignoring rights over MFP,” said N C Saxena, member of the National Advisory Council, who is reviewing FRA implementation. “We are losing the opportunity to economically empower tribal communities,” he said.

In Chhattigarh, the ground reality is no different. Of the 214,918 claims processed in the state, only 250 relate to community rights and none of them grant rights over MFP. The state’s principal chief conservator of forests, A K Singh said he had not heard of a demand for rights over MFP.

Most lower level forest officials who are supposed to help process forest rights claims are not aware of the provisions of the Act. “The directive from senior officials was to go to forest villages and collect signatures on forms that identify agricultural land and dwellings. We were not told about MFP,” said a forest officer of Darbha in Jagdalpur district of Chhattisgarh.

A study on the implementation of FRA in Chhattisgarh and Madhya Pradesh by non-profit Samarthan in Bhopal goes beyond the Centre’s status report. No community claims were approved in districts that have dense forests and high concentration of tribal population, the yet-to-be-released report states. The Chhattisgarh government started processing community claims only after the tribal affairs ministry ordered it in July 2008; even then the rights did not include MFP, it adds. The study spanning 10 districts, including Naxalite-affected areas, says the authorities allowed only certain community rights under the Act like school buildings. Though tribals ranked MFP as the number one community asset in terms of relevance to their lives, only 7.3 per cent claims cleared in Chhattisgarh gave community rights; in Madhya Pradesh, approval for such claims accounted for 23.6 per cent (see infographic ‘Red flag’,).

While forest officials claim there is no demand for rights over MFP, community leaders say the officials hid the fact that FRA included community rights over MFP. “One can smell a conspiracy. I have been to many gram sabha meetings on filing forest rights claims; MFP was rarely discussed,” said Mamata Dash of the National Forum of Forest People and Forest Workers in Delhi.

MFP sustains forest departments

The main reason forest department officials are not telling people about rights over MFP is that it is a major source of revenue for forest departments (see ‘Minor to major’,). Most states have nationalised certain MFP items— mahua, sal seeds and flowers, tendu leaves and certain gums. The produce accounts for 50 per cent of forest revenue, according to the forestry statistics of India; the states trade in them through cooperatives and corporations. FRA and the Panchayat (Extension to the Scheduled Areas) Act (PESA), however, render state trading of MFP illegal (see below: ‘Colonial legacy stays’).

Most forest departments earn more from MFP than timber. For example, Andhra Pradesh, earns Rs 82 crore from MFP, while its earning from timber is Rs 43 crore. In Chhattisgarh, the tendu capital of India, MFP accounts for 60 per cent of forest revenue. After the Supreme Court banned tree felling in forests without working plans, MFP has emerged as the main source of revenue for forest departments.

“They don’t want to part with the profits they make from MFP trade,” said Gautam Bandopadhyaya, an activist in Raipur in Chhattisgarh who works on forest rights. In most states, the first gram sabha meeting mandated by the Act was the platform for informing people about the Act and start processing the claims. “Communities implemented a historic Act without knowing its key provisions and effectively lost their rights over MFP,” said Dash.

“The political commitment that the National Rural Employment Guarantee Act got, was not given to FRA,” a senior official of the Planning Commission’s perspective planning division said.

Bikash Rath of non-profit Regional Centre for Development Cooperation, in Bhubaneswar said even in places where communities have followed due process, community claims have been rejected. People in the villages of Odisha and Andhra Pradesh confirmed this. None of the villages Down To Earth (DTE) correspondents visited in these states had received rights over MFP; in some cases claims were rejected.

There are also instances where the forest officials prevent people from taking control over MFP. Mendha Lekha residents who have got rights over MFP were prevented from taking their produce to the market; forest officials told them they would need transit passes (see ‘Forest titles only on paper’, DTE, May 31, 2010). Sanjay Upadhyay, a partner in the Enviro Legal Defence Firm, an environmental law firm, said the dem – and for transit passes should be challenged in court so that the government issues a clarification that such passes are not needed when community claims have been approved under FRA. Marda residents said forest officials have been visiting them regularly and telling them their rights over MFP do not include tendu leaves and bamboo. A senior district official in Gadchiroli conceded loss of revenue from MFP is a major concern for forest and district officials.

Conspiracy of joint management

To retain hold over forests, various state forest departments are pushing for joint forest management (JFM) committees (first introduced in the 1990) to manage community forest rights. Such a committee is at the village-level and has a forest official as joint secretary. Minutes of a workshop of the Indian Forest Service officers on January 11 this year include a recommendation that these committees should be the new forest rights committees and declared village-level institutions under FRA.

In Balda panchayat in Koraput district of Odisha, the forest department tried to bring some of the forests used by the residents under JFM. “We did not allow it because we were worried it would curb our community rights,” said Jagdish Pangi of Parajaghindol village under the panchayat.

In Andhra Pradesh’s Paderu block in Visakhapatnam, the authorities carried out resettlement of 118 villages between 2002 and 2007, with funds from the World Bank. The plan was meant to compensate the tribals for the shifting agricultural land they lost under an earlier World Bank-funded JFM project. “People were told the money was for land improvement; they did not realise they would be signing away their land,” said P Devullu of non-profit Sanjeevini Rural Development Society in Visakhapatnam. The people who lost their land to the project could not claim rights under FRA.

“Such attempts by the forest department are unconstitutional,” said Subodh Kulkarni, a researcher in Pune who is studying implementation of FRA. But director general of forests in the Union Ministry of Environment and Forests (MoEF), P J Dilip Kumar, said JFMs draw their authority from the gram sabhas and give representation to all sections of society. “Panchayats tend to get politicised and weaker sections of society are left out,” he said.

PESA stalled

A battle for control over resources was witnessed when PESA was passed in 1996. The Act provides for community rights over MFP in tribal areas of nine states, which are also Naxal hot spots. PESA puts the gram sabhas in charge of MFP, but did not define what constitutes MFP.

Not a single state has drafted the rules under the Act to give effect to it (see ‘States retain control…’,). Maharashtra, Gujarat and Odisha tried to dilute the provisions of rights over MFP.

In Maharashtra, people were given rights over 33 MFP items. But within a year, these rights were transferred to the Tribal Development Corporation on the pretext that people were unable to manage MFP.

The Odisha government negated PESA by adding a clause in the corresponding state law that made the Act subject to existing laws. This includes the Non-Timber Forest Products Policy of 2000 that states panchayats shall have no control over MFP collected from reserve forests.

Technically, all laws that are in conflict with PESA ought to have been repealed after PESA came into force 13 years ago.

The Andhra Pradesh government bypassed PESA by giving rights over MFP to Van Suraksha Samitis (forest protection committees under JFM). The Madhya Pradesh government was prompt in effecting changes in the state laws in response to PESA. The state’s Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes department issued a circular to district collectors in April 1999 transferring powers to collect and sell MFP to gram panchayats. It also suitably amended the panchayat rules. But a few months later, the department issued another circular saying nationalised MFP items like tendu leaves would not be controlled by gram panchayats because PESA did not define MFP.

In these states, cooperative federations trade in nationalised MFP items.

War of words

Now the Centre views PESA and FRA as a means to curb Naxalism. Therefore, non-implementation of the provisions giving rights over MFP to people has triggered a fight between ministries. Secretary to the Union Ministry of Home Affairs, G K Pillai, in a letter to MoEF in June this year, accused the forest department of atrocities against tribals in Madhya Pradesh and causing dissatisfaction among forest people. Copies of the letter were marked to the Prime Minister’s Office, the Planning Commission and the ministries for tribal affairs and panchayati raj.

MoEF responded by saying that it is poor governance that is spreading Naxalism and sought a ban on mining in forest areas.

It is learnt that the Planning Commission, which is finalising a Rs 13,000 crore development package for Naxalite-affected districts, proposes conditions for fund transfer under the programme: performance of the states in implementing PESA and FRA would be a major eligibility criterion. Media reports suggest the prime minister has asked the Commission to introduce stringent measures in the proposal to ensure transfer of power to panchayats. Planning Commission deputy chairperson Montek Singh Ahluwalia has said that forest department-sponsored corporations dealing in MFP are illegal and has called for a better business model to benefit collectors of MFP.

The director general of forests, defended his ministry. “Without protection of MoEF and the Forest Conservation Act, Naxalites and industries will take over forest resources,” said Dilip Kumar.

MoEF is planning a project that may prove to be another flashpoint in the battle for rights over forest resources. The ministry wants to rope in tribals for its Green India Mission, one of the eight missions under the National Action Plan on Climate Change. The mission aims to increase forest cover by five million hectares by 2020 to curb greenhouse gas emissions; the forest people will be involved in planning, execution and monitoring activities. The mission will promote tree plantation on all types of land including common lands and degraded forests.

A Parliamentary standing committee in its report in 2008 has criticised such programmes, saying they promote monoculture. MFP depends on plant diversity and provide income in all seasons.

In some villages like Mendha Lekha, people have been opposing tree plantation drives saying it affects MFP.



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