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Maharashtra government takes back control of forest trade

Move comes even as an RSS-affiliated organisation opposed such regulations

Nitin Sethi  |  New Delhi 

Maharashtra government takes back control of forest trade

The Maharashtra government has finalised regulations to allow it to wrest from tribals the control of the forest trade in goods such as bamboo and tendu leaves, worth thousands of crore annually. This means the government will also manage potentially 80 per cent of community forestlands in the state. The regulations came after the Union tribal affairs ministry’s volte-face on interpreting the Forest Rights Act (FRA).

The FRA gives tribal and other forest-dwellers’ gram sabhas (village councils) the sole statutory authority to manage, protect and utilise traditional community forestlands. But, the Maharashtra government prepared alternative state-level regulations that would help the forest department retain complete management control over such community forests in villages. The tribal affairs ministry, after repeatedly informing the state and other central government departments that the regulations were illegal and unconstitutional, unless approved by the President of India, eventually relented and gave the nod with some caveats. The Maharashtra government has taken the cue and gone a step further.

State government documents reviewed by Business Standard show it has decided these regulations, empowering the forest department to retain control will be applicable in all but three situations.

The rules, Indian Forests (Maharashtra) (Regulation of assignment, management, and cancellation of village forests) Rules 2014, will not be applicable in Schedule V areas, where rights of tribals have already been settled under the Act and in places where claims of tribals are pending.

The state has 16,600 villages with forest land in their territories. Under the Act, the government can claim for community ownership in each of these villages. But, according to tribal affairs ministry’s latest records, by December 2015, only 7,152 villages had formally put forth claims for community forestlands under the Act. Of these, 3,957 claims were accepted and 1,843 rejected. In other words, the Maharashtra government will be able to re-impose the forest department’s fiat on more than 11,000 village forests (excluding those in Schedule V designated areas). This is likely to be a very conservative number, considering these community claims over forest lands. According to a conservative estimation of the Washington-based, Rights and Resources Initiative, the state has 3.6 million hectares of forests that could legally be handed over to tribals and forest-dwellers as traditional community forests under FRA. The Maharashtra government has, so far given community rights to 349,437 hectares. A large chunk of the other 3.3 million hectares of forest lands could now potentially come back under the state department’s control.

Documents reviewed by Business Standard shows the RSS-affiliated Vanvasi Kalyan Ashram wrote to Chief Minister Devendra Fadnavis that these regulations be done away with, claiming the imposition of these was fomenting anger in the state. The government has decided to go ahead and retain the regulations, with modifications.

The tribal affairs ministry too, had earlier warned that the identification and settlement of community rights of tribals was in a nascent stage across the country, including Maharashtra and the state could not impose its own system till all the rights of the people were settled. It had warned that this would be to the detriment of the tribals and other forest-dwellers.

But, it was eventually convinced to change its legal stance, with the cabinet secretariat weighing in. The Maharashtra government was persistently lobbying. Union environment minister Prakash Javadekar and Nitin Gadkari — both Bharatiya Janata Party leaders from Maharashtra — asked the tribal affairs ministry to back off.

The preamble of FRA notes that the law was passed to correct the historical wrong done when tribal and others’ forest lands were taken over by the government summarily during the colonial era. Since then, the forest department had retained control over these forests and the trade in forest produce, which the erstwhile Planning Commission estimated was worth Rs 50,000 crore annually. This also led to hundreds of thousands of tribals being termed as encroachers on their traditional lands in government records.

Under the rules, Maharashtra state forest department would have the powers to decide if and how tribals get access to their community forests by defining them as ‘village forests’. It would get to decide how the tribals sell forest produce and what revenues they can get from it. The forest department would also have the powers to withdraw these rights of tribals if it believes that the tribals and other forest-dwellers are not meeting the standards state government has set.

This puts in place a route that other states also could follow to bypass handing over rights to tribals over their community forests. Madhya Pradesh has already followed suit.




SEIZING CONTROL
  • The Forest Rights Act (FRA) gives tribal and other forest-dwellers’ gram sabhas (village councils) the sole statutory authority to manage, protect and utilise traditional community forestlands
  • The Maharashtra government has finalised regulations to allow it to take back control of the forest trade from tribals worth thousands of crore annually, and management of about 80% of community forestlands in the state
  • The tribal affairs ministry, after repeatedly informing that the regulations were illegal and unconstitutional, unless approved by the President of India, eventually relented and gave the nod with some caveats
  • The state has 16,600 villages with forest land in their territories. Under the Act, the government can claim for community ownership in each of these villages.

  • Under the rules, Indian Forests (Maharashtra) (Regulation of assignment, management, and cancellation of village forests) Rules 2014, Maharashtra state forest department would have the powers to decide if and how tribals get access to their community forests by defining them as ‘village forests’

First Published: Sat, March 12 2016. 21:42 IST
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