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Pro-corporate? New GoI circular 'blatant attempt' to control Adivasi lives, livelihoods

By Hemant Das* 

The Indian Community Activists Network (ICAN) condemns the anti-forest dwellers circular jointly issued by the Ministry of Environment, Forests and Climate Change (MoEFCC) and the (Ministry of Tribal Affairs (MoTA), Government of India (GoI) on July 6. 
In the name of serving the best interests of the Adivasis and other forest dwellers, the circular makes a bold and blatant attempt to place Forest Department again in control of their lives and livelihood in violation of the letter and spirit of the Forest Rights Act (FRA) 2006.
Most conspicuously, this letter, which sets directions on management of community forest resources, has been drafted without any consultation with or informed consent of the forest dwellers’ Gram Sabhas and/or the forest rights groups.
Indeed, the Forest Department must co-operate with the Gram Sabha to help it implement Community Forest Resource Management Rights recognised by FRA, but it has never accepted the new role defined under FRA, which is the hallmark of democratic decentralisation, to work under the supremacy of the Gram Sabha. 
This is evident from the way in which the circular tries to legitimise Joint Forest Management (JFM), a programme created by executive order of the MoEFCC, and every village JFM Committee has the forest fuard as secretary to de facto control the committee.
It is clear from the smug­gling in of JFM into the Circular that MoEFCC’s attitude to undermine FRA remains unchanged. The circular shows how meekly has MoTA, the nodal ministry to oversee FRA implementation, surrendered to MoEFCC, which has in recent years liberalized the laws and regulations related to protection of environment in favour of  'ease of doing business’. 
It has also diluted the role of Gram Sabhas by eliminating the need for public hearings in most projects, so that, big corporate houses can flagrantly exploit the natural wealth of forests at the cost of forest cover and forest people.
The veto power given in FRA to Gram Sabhas against diversion of forest land for any non-forest purpose has been repeatedly ignored. We must not forget that last year the Prime Minister had initiated the auction of 41 coal blocks that would destroy an enormous area of our forests. In this backdrop, ICAN reads the joint circular as culmination of the pro-corporate process set in motion last year.
The Forest Department, in the guise of a guide or mentor or manager, will now on be present in every area of the forest dwellers’ life. Any dispute arising out of the interpretation of FRA by the government agencies would be referred to the two ministries, MoTA and MoEFCC.
The main cause of any dispute arising in the implementation of FRA is the Forest Department’s obstructive role in the rights recognition process. Evidently, MoEFCC and the Indian Forest Service are much stronger than MoTA within the Union Government. It is very evident that in the event of any dispute MoEFCC’s views will prevail, to the detriment of forest-dwellers’ rights.
Forest dwellers have developed NTFP collection skills through generations. FRA grants ownership of non-timber forest products (NTFP) to Gram Sabhas ending the monopoly of Forest Department over NTFP collection, processing and sale. The joint circular empowers the Forest Department to implement skill development programmes for capacity building of individual gatherers and teach them better ways to collect non-timber forest produce.
It will supposedly mentor Gram Sabhas in preparing the conservation plans in their area. While the Forest Department is a single streamlined central agency, Gram Sabhas, already weak and scattered, will not be able to resist the imposition of Forest Department schemes coming from the above.
The joint circular talks of integrating Gram Sabhas’ forest resource management plans with Forest Department micro, working or management plans. According to the provision in FRA of recognition of Community Forest Resource Management rights, Gram Sabhas are empowered to come up with a conservation plan that not only focuses on biodiversity protection or commercial potential of NTFP, but tries to achieve results keeping in mind the social, cultural and economic needs of its members as well as the future of its members.
Joint circular is silent on biggest problem faced by forest-dwellers under FRA --  tardy and obstructive process of rights recognition
The Forest Department vide their working plan brings about plantation and conservation programmes that results in changing the character of the forest, loss of ownership over NTFP, loss of livelihood and eviction. Further, the role of the Forest Department and its agencies in value chain addition of NTFPS collected by forest dwellers, as indicated in the joint letter, will continue and reinforce the Forest Department’s monopoly on NTFPs.
The joint circular is silent on the biggest problem faced by forest-dwellers under FRA -- the tardy and obstructive process of the rights recognition. Hundreds of thousands of forest dwellers are under the threat of eviction from the land where their ancestors spent their entire lives. Regrettably, instead of coming out with its own plan for strict and full implementation of FRA the Tribal Affairs ministry has succumbed to the pressure of MoEFCC, which has chosen to function as an agent of big corporate houses that see lucrative opportunity in destruction of our forests.
Though the joint circular (para 2), while explaining the rationale of FRA recognises “insecurity of tenure and fear of eviction” as ‘historical injustice’, that spirit is missing in it. It, therefore, needs to be comprehensively re-drafted to implement the letter and spirit of FRA ICAN calls on the people in general and activists in particular to reject the joint circular in its present form, unite and save FRA. This joint circular is one more step that threatens ruin of forests and forest dwellers.
ICAN intends to organise, support and join with the protests against this ill conceived letter building up in different corners of the country and seeks cooperation of all people’s organisations in resisting the government attempts to sabotage FRA.
---
*Convener, Forest Rights group, Indian Community Activists Network (ICAN), Daltonganj, Jharkhand

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