While campaigners for forest rights and Adivasis say it is an act of brazenness for the Maharashtra government to have drafted the Village Forest Rules in March this year, Andhra Pradesh had diluted the FRA in 2008 itself by giving community forest rights (CFR) certificates to joint forest management committees instead of gram sabhas.
After protests, the Union Ministry of Tribal Affairs had kept the rules in abeyance but efforts are on by the Union Environment and Rural Development Ministers to get that decision revoked.
Shankar Gopalakrishnan of the Campaign for Survival and Dignity told The Hindu that the FRA overrode other legislation regarding forest rights to forest dwellers and it was Central legislation, so States could not bring in rules contravening it.
Also, while the notification said the village forest rules were not applicable to community forest rights (CFR) areas under the FRA, many CFR claims were pending in Maharashtra. Till May 2014, Maharashtra received 3,46,230 (3,41,085 individual and 5,145 community) claims and of these, 1,03,797 (1,01,426 individual and 2,371 community) were given titles.
The trick was in the pro-FRA provision — in reality, every village should be given CFR if it had a forest area and if not, the district administration had to give reasons which had to be recorded, Mr Gopalakrishnan said. But the new rules had hijacked the CFR provision in the FRA and effectively, minor forest produce would be taken back by the Forest department.
Other dilutions to the FRA had already taken place. On July 4, the Environment Ministry issued guidelines stating that proposals seeking prior approval under the Forest Conservation Act for prospecting on forest land were exempt from submitting documentary evidence in support of settlement of rights in accordance with the FRA.
The Supreme Court’s Central Empowered Committee had recommended that in-principle clearance should be given for mining lease renewals without FRA compliance, Mr. Gopalakrishnan said.
In addition, the Campaign for Survival and Dignity found that several mining projects had forged gram sabha resolutions favouring projects.
In one case in Madhya Pradesh, the High Court had ordered an inquiry into the forgery but nothing had happened.Mendha Lekha village in Gadchiroli district of Maharashtra was the first in the country to be given the rights to harvest and sell bamboo in 2011.
Since then it has earned crores of rupees in bamboo sales which it ploughs back into village development.
The new rules bring back the Forest department into pre-eminence instead of the gram sabha. Village forests will be managed by a Van Vyavsthapan Samiti on the lines of a Joint Forest Management Committee with a forest official on board.