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Forest rights law: How joint environment, tribal ministry memo 'ignores' tribal interests

By Palla Trinadha Rao

The recent Joint Communication by both the Secretaries of Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change and Ministry of Tribal Affairs for implementation of the Scheduled Tribes and Other Traditional Forest Dwellers (Recognition of Forest Rights) Act 2006 dilutes the very spirit of the Forest Rights Act.
The Forest Rights Act (FRA), 2006 was enacted to correct the historic injustice done to Scheduled Tribes and other traditional forest dwellers whose ‘forest rights on ancestral lands and their habitat were not adequately recognised in the consolidation of State forests during the colonial period as well as in independent India’.
FRA recognises and vests forest rights in the forest landscape in the country. This Act is to restrain the perpetration of coercive methods of forest department against the usage of forest lands as a matter of right.
The joint note signed by the Secretaries of both the Ministries, undermines the very role of Ministry of Tribal Affairs (MoTA), which is the nodal ministry for implementation of the FRA so far issuing guidelines and clarifications in implementation of FRA.
The forest department is only a party to the proceedings in adjudication of claims that are approved by the concerned Gram Sabha for recognition of both community rights as well as individual forest rights under the Forest Rights Act. Tribal Affairs Ministry now saying that henceforth, they and the Environment Ministry will together provide clarifications only is simply not tenable.
Hiding behind the aprons of the Environment Ministry does not get away from the fact that ‘forest rights’ is a subject that is entrusted with the Tribal Ministry and not with the Environment Ministry since 2006.
Thousands of claims filed by tribals in both Andhra and Telangana have been opposed tooth and nail by the forest department personnel during the adjudication process before the committees set up under the Forest Rights Act.
It has become a herculean task to the District Collectors and Project Officers (ITDAs) to convince the forest department officials who are members of the Committees at both Sub divisional and District Level for recognition of forest rights of tribals.
More particularly in erstwhile Kammam and Warangal districts, in the State of Telangana, regular conflicts are reported between the forest department staff and the tribal occupants and also title holders of forest lands. Further, forest department is digging long deep trenches restraining the tribals from exercising their right to individual land cultivation as well as community rights.
The state governments through its high level State Level Monitoring Committee headed by the Chief Secretary is the statutory body anyway to monitor FRA implementation. Therefore now asking the State government to instruct the forest department to lead FRA implementation undermines this committee by pushing Forest Department to the centre stage in implementation of FRA.
This will only create more conflicts, both at ground level as well as within the legal framework of the law in effect, freezing the already half frozen FRA implementation due to the review of rejected claims resulting from the 2019 Supreme Court order to evict the rejected claimants and also the subsequent Covid-19 pandemic. This in effect undermines also the State Tribal Department who is the nodal department to implement FRA. The result would be the abandoning of tribal interest by the Tribal Ministry.
Thousands of claims filed by tribals in both Andhra and Telangana have been opposed tooth and nail by the forest department personnel
Anyway Forest Rights Act gives enough space to the forest department during the verification process of claims filed by the applicants for either individual or community or community forest resource rights and also all the way to the approval stage.
The Joint Statement further says that the frontline staff of State Forest Department should extend assistance to the institutions /committees under Rule 4(1)(e) and (f) of the Act for preparing conservation and management plan etc.
In fact the said Rules empowers the Gram Sabha to constitute a committee for protection of wildlife, forest and biodiversity etc. and also monitor and control the committee which shall prepare conservation and management plan for community forest resources.
Therefore the key role is with the Gram Sabha and its committee, not the Forest Department. The Gram Sabha may take technical advice from the Forest Department as and when required, but not mandatory. Gram Sabha is the fulcrum for forest governance as far as the community forest rights and community forest resources is concerned.
Saying that the benefits gained from the Joint Forest Management Movement need to be harnessed for protection and management of forests by the Joint communication, makes one to understand that the efforts to bring back the role of Joint Forest Management Committees floated by the Forest Department in the management of community forest resources which is a violation of FRA. The role of JFM Committees has been derecognized by the legal frame work of the Forest Rights Act.
The Joint Statement further emphasizes the role of Forest Department in undertaking the lively hood projects or schemes taken by the Ministry of Tribal Affairs in relation to marketing, processing etc of non timber forest products. This undermines the State Tribal Welfare Department. In fact, both the Forest Rights Act and Panchayats Extension to Scheduled Area Act 1996 provide ownership right over minor forest produce to Gram Sabha and also empower them to issue transit permits to transport the non timber forest products and also value added products.
Therefore, the Joint Communication undermines the legitimate role of Gram Sabha in marketing the non timber produce and implementation of its related schemes. The Gram Sabha shall be the approving authority under PESA Act, 1996 to any project or schemes taken up at the village level. It is indeed sad to see the Tribal Ministry receding and acceding its powers, functions and funds to the Forest Department.

Comments

RR PRASAD said…
Excellent revelations of the contradictions.
Conservationist said…
Yeah, tribals should be allowed to deforest as much as possible. They should have the right to poach wildlife, clear forests and drain wetlands.

Forest rights triumphs all.

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