In ‘campaign mode’, states flout FRA rules

In ‘campaign mode’, states flout FRA rules

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Prime Minister Narendra Modi, earlier this year, pulled up the eight ‘laggard states’ for the poor implementation of the Forest Rights Act and asked them to get into a ‘campaign mode’ to implement the same. This evoked a mixed response from the civil society organisations — of cheer and scepticism. 

It was April 22, 2015 and he was addressing the second PRAGATI (Pro-Active Governance and Timely Implementation) meeting. Secretaries of the centre and state chief secretaries attended the meeting. 

The ‘cheers’ were for obvious reasons. The ‘scepticism’ arose due to diligent efforts of the present government to push through the land bill and dilute the FRA. 

But that is another story. In the PRAGATI meeting, the Prime Minister set a deadline for the states to go into a campaign mode to distribute titles of forest rights to the adivasis and the other traditional forest dwellers. The ministry was asked to follow a target-based approach and set deadlines for states. 

However, the Prime Minister’s speech and its subsequent impact exposed the chinks in the armour. What it triggered was the blatant violation of the Act by some of the states in the garb of speedy implementation. 

For instance, Chhattisgarh and Odisha1 - two of the better performers as far as the distribution of title under the Forest Rights Act- were in news for the haste with which they were implementing the Act. 

The Chhattisgarh government (letter dated July 27, 2015) issued a statement asking the Gram Sabhas to issue statements saying that all FRA claims have been cleared at their village level and no eligible claimants remained. These statements (or certificates) were to be issued by August 15 at the Gram Sabha meetings scheduled to be held across the state. 

Toeing Chhattisgarh’s line is Jharkhand. All the Deputy Commissioners were instructed, on July 28, to settle all the “eligible” claims of FRA within a month and get implementation certificates from Gram Sabhas by October 2.

Incidentally, such certificates are mandatory for the diversion of forests for industrial purposes. In 2009, the MoEF issued an ordinance saying no diversion of forestland would be allowed unless Gram Sabhas in affected areas certified that rights’ claims under the FRA were settled and they had no objections.

The Chhattisgarh government, however, retracted and issued a clarification on August 13, 2015 after pressure from the civil society organisations and a little rap on the knuckle by the Ministry of Tribal Affairs (MOTA).

MOTA in a letter dated August 10, 2015 reprimanded the state saying that that implementation of the FRA “in a proactive and time-bound manner, should not be interpreted to mean bypassing the requirements of the said Act and Rules in any manner”. In essence, the letter stated that the complete process of recognition and vesting of forest rights under Forest Rights Rule that require a certain number of steps, be carried out.

In its August 11, 2015 letter, the Chhattisgarh government explained that the July 27 letter was wrongly interpreted and that August 15 was not a deadline for the distribution of the titles and it would continue beyond that as well. On August 13, 2015, it issued another letter declaring the July 27 letter null and void. 

In Odisha, on the other hand, the minutes of meeting of State Level Monitoring Committee (SLMC) on July 21, 2015 reveal that the state is contemplating giving Community Forest Rights (CFR) to Van Suraksha Samitis (VSS) formed under the Joint Forest Management Scheme instead of the Gram Sabha. 

The Committee took this decision despite guidelines issued by MOTA that VSS are not eligible for availing CFR as per the FRA provisions. 

MOTA has now asked the state to withdraw this decision. In a letter to the state Chief Secretary GC Pati, MOTA secretary Arun Jha maintained that CFR can only be conferred on the Gram Sabha and not on VSS as per the Forest Rights Rule. 

The rationale of the Committee was that the VSS in the state were trained and nurtured by the forest department to sustainably manage and conserve the forest and they can be given rights where they are not in conflict with the Gram Sabha. 

Besides the fact that what the Odisha government was trying to push is illegal, most of the VSS are either defunct or non-functional. The powers lie with the forest department and the VSS members are simply the protectors in lieu of some privileges. Activists allege that the president of the VSS (usually the headman) and the secretary of the VSS (usually the forester) are in cahoots and siphon off the money earmarked for forest management in most cases. 

What is worrying is the fact that other states are picking up this idea. At a meeting organised by PACS (Poorest Areas Civil Societies) programme, in Raipur, Chhattisgarh, the secretary of the Chhattisgarh Tribal Department echoed similar sentiments. 

He is known to have said that there is no harm in VSS getting titles as they had been managing the forest resources for quite some time. He added that since the communities were already using the land for grazing as well as collecting Non Timber Forest Produce (NTFPs), there was no need for a title. Such cavalier remarks are a reflection of the lack of serious intent of the officials to implement the Act. 

The Odisha State Level Monitoring Committee (SLMC) meeting also decided that police officers should be made part of the District Level Committee (DLC) and Sub-Divisional Level Committee (SDLC). This was again in violation of the FRA rules – there is no provision in the FRA to appoint additional members apart from what is stipulated in the rules

The Act does not provide for a police officer to be in these Committees. The Ministry has now asked the State Government to withdraw this decision taken at the SLMC meeting as well. 

The Maharashtra Forest Rules subvert the CFR under the FRA. The latest notification by the Madhya Pradesh government completely ignores the Act. It essentially brings all forestland under the jurisdiction of the forest department through the Joint Forest Management Committees.

As forest rights activist Madhu Sarin points out, in one of the very active e-groups on CFR, “both sets of rules (in this case MP and Maharashtra) provide the JFM committees or VSS the power to enter into agreement with industry and one of the hidden agendas appears to be that of enabling industry to gain access to forest lands”. 

There is a clear correlation. According to a report in Down To Earth magazine, Madhya Pradesh Chief Minister Shivraj Singh Chouhan, on June 20, 2015, offered 36,000 sq km of degraded forestland to investors. He was addressing the country’s first Bamboo Investor’s Meet in Bhopal. 

The three forest-rich states of Madhya Pradesh, Jharkhand and Maharashtra, are home to a sizeable tribal population and the rules and orders they have come up with, if implemented, may prevent recognition of tribal rights over forestland under the FRA.

All these developments seem to run counter to the ‘stated’ intent of the Prime Minister. The steps taken by the state governments appear to be aimed at easing processes for the development agenda of the present national government. In fact, the MOTA set a deadline of November 2015 for finally completing the process and vesting the claims.

In this regard, the Tribal ministry has set out a clear roadmap to the complete the process. These include translation of FRA guidelines into local languages, create awareness, identify land using technology, holding meetings to proceed with the verification through different committees (as per the FRA).

The Chief Ministers, on the other hand clearly, seem to have clung on to words like ‘deadline’ and ‘campaign mode’ and ignored the rest. However, with the MOTA keeping a tab on the implementation of the Act in the states, we hope that the cheers weren’t premature.  

 

 

________________________________________________________

1According to MOTA (as on February 28, 2015), Chhattisgarh and Odisha had distributed 3,36,590 and 3,45,473 forest titles respectively.

 

 

Written by: Savvy Soumya Misra, Research Coordinator, Oxfam India

Photo credit: Chinky Shukla

 


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