Congress leader Jairam Ramesh has demanded withdrawal of rules that allow transfer of over Rs 50,000 crore to states to boost afforestation, saying they violate various constitutional provisions and the rights of tribals and local communities.
In a letter to Union Environment Minister Harsh Vardhan, the Congress leader said the final Compensatory Afforestation Fund (CAF) rules "go completely against the letter and spirit of the assurance" given by his predecessor, Anil Madhav Dave, in Parliament on July 28, 2016.
"The rules deserve to be withdrawn for their grave violation of the Fifth Schedule of the Constitution, the Panchayats (Extension to Scheduled Areas) Act 1996 (PESA) and the Forest Rights Act," he said.
The CAF Rules will pave the way for transfer of over Rs 50,000 crore to states and boost efforts towards restoration and enhancement of forest wealth, Vardhan had said recently.
The rules were notified on August 10.
Ramesh said that after studying the minister's reply to his letter written in August on the issue, it is clear that the final CAF Rules provide wide latitude to bypass the statutory authority of the Gram Sabha and will encourage serious violations of the rights of tribals and other communities that depend on forests for their livelihood.
He said the minister's clarification that the CAF Rules define the Gram Sabha as per the laws specified in Rule 2(2) does not address concerns relating to the rights and authority of the Gram Sabha to administer the compensatory afforestation funds.
"As you know, the FRA and PESA usher a paradigm change in governance and conservation of land and customary forest resources by vesting legal authority in the Gram Sabha.
"Its role as the rightful authority for the administration of funds can be addressed only by incorporating clear provisions defining the Gram Sabha as per FRA and PESA, and by clarifying its legal authority. The final CAF Rules incorporate only vague references to the Gram Sabha and FRA," he said in his letter to Harsh Vardhan.
Ramesh said the Gram Sabha is a statutory legal authority that holds the legal authority to governance and management of land and community forest resources, including decision making on use of land and administration of funds under government programs and schemes.
"The manner in which the Gram Sabha has been mentioned alongside VFMCs/JFMCs creates scope for undermining and bypassing authority of the Gram Sabha in implementation of CAF and administration of CAF funds.
"There are already reports of the forest department bypassing the Gram Sabha and consulting only JFMCs/VSSs in CFR areas to undertake CA activities causing large-scale violations of rights of tribals and local communities due to plantation activities," he said.
He also said Vardhan's statement that CA activities do not further divert forest land or displace tribal population "belie ground realities".
He claimed that neither the CAF Act nor the Rules have provisions to safeguard the rights of tribals and local communities.
Ramesh said the minister failed to understand the ambiguity in the CAF Rules which tend to provide a "limited interpretation" of the phrase "wherever applicable".
This can mean only those areas where the titles of rights holders have been formally recognized, which is a mere three per cent of the forest area over which the FRA vests rights, he said.
"It is clear from your response that the MoEF guideline of August 3, 2009 on the link between FRA compliance and clearance for diversion of forest land has been abandoned.
"This was actually more than a guideline - it was an essential requirement. The CAF Act and Rules completely ignore this, making diversion of forest land possible without fulfilling any of the provisions of the FRA that protect the rights of tribals and local communities," Ramesh wrote.
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