By Campaign for Survival and Dignity team
While the State Forest Department, Government of Odisha, claims to have formed 12,500 Joint Forest Management Committees (JFMCs)/Van Suraskha Samitis (VSSs) in the State and has launched Ama Jungle Yojana (AJY) in 7,000 VSSs with the help of Rs 1170.02 crore of Compensatory Afforestation (CAMPA) Fund and planned to promote 3,000 VSSs with a loan of Rs 1509.50 crore from the Japan International Cooperation Agency (JICA) for the Odisha Forestry Sector Development (OFSD) project, the tribals and forest dwellers of Bolangir district have given a blow to the Forest Department, compelling the government to count the number of VSSs said to have been formed in the state. They have started dissolving their VSSs formed by the Forest Department in 1990s using Forest Rights Act (FRA), 2006.
It is to be noted that after the enactment and implementation of FRA in the country in 2006, there has been a consistent demand from rights-based organisations, including Campaign for Survival and Dignity (CSD), which played a crucial role in the enactment of FRA, before both the Central and State governments to dissolve the existing VSSs formed at village level under Joint Forest Management (JFM) Resolution, 1990s. They have asserted that the JFM Resolution which executed to implement the objectives of Indian Forest Policy,1988, has lost its legal sanctity and now become irrelevant and is contradictory to FRA, 2006.
They are of the view the FRA, 2006 seeks to undo the historical injustice done with forest dwellers of the country, superseding existing forest, wildlife and non-timber forest products (NTFP) and panchayat laws, and there is no mention of VSS in the FRA and in the rules framed thereunder. Rather the Act, especially Section 3(1) (e) and Section 5 of the FRA, 2006 and Section 4(1) (e) of the Forest Rights (FR) Rules, empowers the Gram Sabhas/forest dwellers to form independent Forest Protection and Management Committees (FP&MCs) exclusively taking their own members. In this context, FRA, 2006 is a totally different constitutional statute which is contradictory to other acts and laws which debar government employees and outsiders to become executive members of the general body (Gram Sabha).
Thus while in the JFMC/VSS (executive body) formed at the village level, the forester/forest guard is the ex-officio secretary who maintains and controls accounts/Gram Sabha register etc., under FP&MC formed under FRA, the community people among themselves will select their executive.
Besides, the FRA, 2006 recognises traditional ways of forest protection and management contradicting the existing “scientific” forest management on which the whole system of forest protection and management stands and controlled by forest bureaucracy since the colonial period. To conclude FRA, 2006 wants direct democracy in the governance of forests.
Besides, there have been huge allegations against the state Forest Department officials for having dominated in Gram Sabhas, misappropriated funds floating from the Ministry of Environment, Forests and Climate Change (MoEFCC) in the name of forest/wildlife protection, forest regeneration/plantation and management, etc. Further, allegations against Forest Department have been made for cutting and selling trees hands in gloves with the timber/wild life mafias.
Forest rights activists also say that before FRA, 2006, both the Central and State Governments would talk of Panchayats (Extension to Scheduled Areas) PESA Act, 1996 which empowered Gram Sabhas to have rights over natural resources, including forests, water bodies and minor forest produce (MFP) in the scheduled 5th areas. However, the Central government, both under UPA and now under NDA, are now not ready to accept this and continue to violate constitutional laws. Thus, despite of constitutional provisions like PESA Act, 1996 and FRA, 2006, they are simply not ready to hand over forest protection and management power exclusively to Gram Sabhas.
The issue, therefore, are what interests of the Central and state governments? It is simply money, huge money, especially Rs 42,000 crore CAMPA fund, accumulated by diverting forest land, as also money received from international agencies to deal with climate change, global warming, wildlife and environment etc. Thus, it is not surprising that the Central government has passed the CAMPA Bill, 2016 bypassing Gram Sabhas, which have been recognised as Gram Sabha Sarkar under FRA, 2006.
The Modi government, which has come to the power on its slogans of development, is simply not able to digest the blow it suffered in Nyamgiri Hills, and does not want to again empower the Gram Sabhas. Besides, the state governments of different regional political parties are waiting the get 90 per cent of the CAMPA fund for their parties and states. This is the reason why the CAMPA Bill was passed in Parliament on July 28, 2016.
Realising this unacceptable truth, the state chapter of the CSD has started mobilising Gram Sabhas to take on the Forest Department. The tribals and forest-dependent communities have been mobilised to dissolve VSSs using Section 6 of FRA, 2006. Already, four villages, i.e Gulmi, Satbohani,Gudguda and Siajhundangi in Titlagarh block of Bolangir district have organised special Gram Sabhas using Section 6 of FRA, 2006 and begun to dissolve VSS one by one. All these villages not only have dissolved their VSSs but also have formed FP&MCs as per Section 3(1)(i), Section 5 of FRA, 2006 and Section 4(1) (e) of FR Rules 2007.
The last one was on July 30, 2006, when Sialjhundangi Gram Sabha dissolved its VSS/JFMC formed by Forest Department in 1990s. As per Census 2011, it is a small village having 141 households and 555 population, including 35 SCs and 282 STs, and rest are OBC (Gauda). As per the Record of Rights (RoR), there is 123.17 acres of community land (recorded as government land), including 2.45 acres of forest land in the revenue village Sialjhundangi. However, the village is surrounded by Barani reserve forest in the east, Tikhari reserve forest and revenue village Khaliakhaman in the west, Dumerbahal irrigation project in the north and Dangarpada revenue village in the south. The Community Forest Resources (CFR) area would be approximately 2,500 acres over which they have filed claims in “B” and “C” form at Titlagarh FRA Sub-Division Level Committee (SDLC).
Following Gulmi, Satbani and Gudguda Gram Sabhas, the Sialjhundagi Gram Sabha has also sent its Gram Sabha Resolution (dissolving VSS and formation of FP&MC) to the concerned district and State level government officials, i.e. Chief Secretary, Government of Odisha, and secretaries, SC &ST Welfare department and the Forest and Environment department, marking a copy to the Chairman, FRA District Level Committee (DLC), FRA Sub-Divisional level Committee (SDLC), Bolangir DFO, Forest Ranger, Titlagarh etc. for necessary information and action.
At the Gram Sabha meeting, they have condemned the Forest Department for its illegal attempt to reform VSS in the village to carry out AJY launched by the Government of Odisha. The state government wants to popularise all its schemes using “aamo”, “mo” but the main target of the AJY is to form VSS in villages and to spend money in the name of plantation and forest protection.
The most unfortunate part of this programme is involvement of NGOs who are engaged in mobilising the community people to implement AJYs in villages. However, NGOs are on crossroads as many of them claim to have been working on FRA, 2006, helping communities file individual and community rights over forest. CSD has condemned those money-minded NGOs who have lost their moral responsibility towards the tribals and society at large and got involved in AJY by forming anti-FRA VSS. CSD seeks stringent action against these NGOs. CSD has also called upon the community people/tribal organizations to dissolve VSSs formed in their villages and to form FP&MC using FRA, 2006, instead.