In a strong-worded letter, Arun Jha , secretary, Ministry of Tribal Affairs (MoTA), Government of India, has sent a notice to Gokul Chandra Pati, chief secretary, Government of Odisha, who is also happens to be the chairman of the Forest Rights Act (FRA) State-Level Monitoring Committee (SLMC), for its attempt at “violating” the FRA in Odisha. The letter has dismissed as “illegal” the decisions taken by the Odisha government’s last FRA SLMC meeting on July 21, 2015.
Despite MoTA’s directions, there are clear indications that, under pressure from the state forest department, the FRA SLMC at its last July 21, 2015 meeting, had arbitrarily decided to convert Vana Suraksha Samitis (VSS) as Gram Sabha’s Forest Protection and Management committees, formed or to be formed under Section 4(1) (e) of the Forest Rights Rules, 2007.
In Para 9, the SLMC proceedings said, “Under MoTA, the Government of India had issued guidelines that the Joint Forest Management (JFM) committees or the VSS are not eligible for availing the community forest rights as per the FRA provisions. The committee observed that in Odisha, the VSS have been over the years nurtured by the Forest and Environment Department to sustainably manage and protect forest resources.”
They added, “Hence the committee decided that those VSS where there are no conflicts with the Gram Sabha in sustainable management of the forest resources may be identified so that Community Forest Rights (CRFs) can be given under FRA.”
Countering the SLMC decision, MoTA has specified that “CFR may be conferred to Gram Sabha and not to VSS Committee as for FRA Rules 8(i) (as specified in Annexure –IV to these Rules) as amended up to 2012. There is no status that vests any authority with the VSS for CFR rights”.
Notably, even on July 14, 2015 in a video conference, replying on query of the scheduled tribe and scheduled castes secretary, Government of Odisha “whether the JFM/ VSS committees can become the committees as under Section 4 (1) (e)of Forest Rights Rules, 2007”, MoTA had clarified that gram sabha alone has the power to appoint the 4 (1) (e) committee as per the Act and also the committee mandated under FRA is more democratic in nature and JFM committees cannot automatically be given any CFR.
Even while sharing the minutes of the review meeting of July 14, 2015, in its letter dated July 23, 2015, MoTA had alerted different State Governments that “JFM/VSS areas continue to be converted into CFR, though the Act and Rules envisage determination of CFR by the gram sabha. Claims to JFM areas under CFR (Form C) by VSS and grant of titles to VSS are not permissible under FRA”.
MoTA has also dismissed the decision taken by SLMC, Government of Odisha, in Para 10 of its proceeding to co-opt the Superintendents of Police/additional SPs as district level committee (DLC) members and Sub Divisional Police Officers as the sub-division level committee (SDLC) members as special Invitees.
MoTA has further directed the chief secretary, Government of Odisha, to withdraw the decision and to withdraw any such instruction if communicated to the implementing officers in the field area.
The Campaign for Survival and Dignity (CSD), which had fought for the enactment of FRA in the country, has already condemned the decision in Para 9 and 10 in the SLMC meeting by of the Government of Odisha and had raised the issue before the MoTA.
CSD is of the view that “despite consistent illegal efforts by the state forest department, the VSS can never be converted into Forest Protection and Management committee formed to be formed under Section 4(1) (e) because it is contradictory to the basic principles of FRA, 2006.”
Welcoming MoTA’s view, the CSD has said, “Its letter will help the community people to counter the forest department at different levels effectively and dismantle its conspiracy to convert VSS into Gram Sabha’s Forest Protection and Management Committee, formed or to be formed under Section 4(1) (e) of Forest Rights Rules, 2007.”