By Manohar Chauhan*
When the status of recognition of Community Forest Rights and Community Rights over Community Forest Resource (CFR) is at the crossroad in whole country and when the MoEF at the Centre and the State Forest Departments across the States are openly violating the historic Forest Rights Act, 2006 by enacting FRA contradictory laws like CAMPA Fund Act 2016, by launching Village Forest Rules in Maharashtra, Ama Jungle Yojana by Govt. of Odisha and Harithaharam Project by Telengana and Andhra Pradesh Govt. and promoting anti-FRA Joint Forest Management Committee (JFMC)/ Vana Suraskhya Samittee (VSS), etc., at the village level, the exemplary efforts of community people of 8 villages in Bolangir district in Odisha towards dissolving VSS using FRA has shown a glimpse of an empowered community towards establishing rights over CFR.
It was a great moment for all whoever gathered in the Hall of the Institute of Engineers in Bhubanewar in the CSD last National convention on 28th Sept 2016 when leaders of 8 villages were felicitated with clapping for their heroic resolutions they took to dissolve VSS. On that day leaders of Gulmi, Satbahoni, Gudguda, Sialjhundandi, Pipilibandha (Dumdumi), Chiknibahali, Kharali and Barbandha(Ranisilet) Gram Sabhas who dissolved the Vana Surakshya Samiti(VSS) using Section 6 of Forest Rights Act, 2006 realised what they have done against VSS. The facilitation was unique in terms of the way it took place; all the participants of the convention stood up from their chairs and gave a round of clapping to the leaders standing on the stage in front of them.
Definitely, all the members of the 8 Gram Sabhas deserve congratulations for their collective and daring steps they have taken which led to serious debate and discussion. But special thanks are due to the two leaders of the Jami Jungle Surakshya Samiti(JJSS) affiliated to the Campaign for Survival and Dignity(CSD) at the State and National level. JJSS is the block level Sanagthan of tribals and forest dwellers consisting of 20 villages in the Titalagarh Block of Bolangir district. This community based Sangathan has been associated with the CSD from the beginning of the struggle for the enactment of the Forest Rights Act, 2006 and consistently participated in all the programmes of CSD held at State and National level.
The two leaders of the Sangathan Binod Bihari Bhoi and Rupdhara Bisoi have been pioneer in the whole efforts towards mobilising his fellow villagers and dissolving the VSS formed in the villages in 1990s. It was not so easy for Binod Bihari Bhoi to lead the Sangathan over the period because the forest Bit House is in his village and forest Department people always keep an eye on him. Many a times, he was in direct confrontation with the forest officials for protesting against plantation over the individually occupied forest land.
However, after the enactment of Forest Rights Act, 2006 they could feel the victory over forest and forest officials too. In last 8 years of FRA implementation, they consistently helped their people to file individual and community forest rights claims. In the whole process, they were in conflict with the forest Department. Despite their consistent efforts, some of their members have got IFR titles but no titles have been issued over CFR to any of the villages with JJSS. Now after the consistent guidance of the CSD members at the State, they decided to target VSS.
Thus the process of dissolution of VSS started from the village Gulmi on 10th July 2016, the village of the President of JJSS, Binod Bihari Bhoi followed by Satbohani and Gudguda on 25th July and Sialjhundangi on 30th July 2016, followed by Pipilibandha (Dumdumi), Chiknibahali, Kharali and Barbandha (Ranisilet) etc. All these 8 villages are adjacent to reserve forest area and have already filed their CFR claims both in form “B” and “C”. On the same day when they dissolved their VSS, all the villages have formed Forest Protection and Management Committees (FP&MCs) in their villages as per Section 3(1)(i), Section 5 of FRA, 2006 and Section 4(1) (e) of Forest Rights Rules 2007.
They did not depend upon the Gram Panchayat notice for organising the special gram sabha and all these special Gram Sabha meetings were organised in their respective village using Section 6 of FRA, 2006 which empowers them to hold Gram Sabha meeting and to take independent decision/resolution against VSS. The community people have understood that in its FPMC (the executive committee) of the Gram Sabha Sarkar, neither any government employee nor any outsiders can become a member.
Strategically, in most of the FP&MCs formed, the VSS presidents have been included as members FP&MCs. They have also sent the copies of the Gram Sabha Resolution dissolving VSS to all the concern State and district level offices including the office of the Chief Secretary, Secretary, SC &ST Welfare Dept. and Forest and Environment, Govt. of Odisha marking a copy each to the Chairman, FRA District Level Committee (DLC), FRA Sub-Divisional level Committee (SDLC), DFO, Bolangir Forest Division and Forest Ranger, Titalagarh etc. for their necessary information.
These unique and daring steps taken by the 8 gram sabhas of Titlagarh Block in Bolangir district has aroused great debate at the district and State level. “Prameya” the Odisha daily regional newspaper took this issue seriously and covered all the news of Gram sabha dissolving VSS. Pragatibadi and Pioneer too widely covered the stories. The news gave a great shock to the Bolangir DFO who baffled and said that gram sabha have no power to dissolve VSS when asked by media people. It has also given a blow to the State forest Department. Encouraged with the dissolution of VSS by the Gram Sabhas, on 27th July 2016, the frontier tribal front of Bolangir district, Adivasi Kalyan Sangha in a press release declared that “this is just the beginning and no VSS will be there in any village in the district in future.”
Rupdhar Bisoi, one of the leaders of the JJSS says, “After the dissolution of VSSs, our Sangathan has taken two steps forward. One mobilising more and more neighbouring villages towards dissolution of VSS formed in the areas and second we are organising meetings of all FP&MCs formed to devise detail forest protection and management plan at the Gram Sabha level and working on thumb rules using Forest Rights Act and Rules based on which the forest department is supposed to change their Forest Working Plan. We are organising series of meetings to make our people understand of the importance of forest protection at the same time going to demand before the district and state administration to flow all fund meant forest protection and management through the FP&MC formed at the village level.”
Pradip Prabhu, National Convenor of CSD praising the unique initiative of the 8 villagers said in the CSD convention that “These Gram Sabhas of Bolangir district have initiated the process in Odisha and have shown the path how to dissolve VSS using FRA so as to establish gram sabha control over forest legally. Now other villages should come forward and follow the same so that a strong massage can go to the State Forest Department also to MoEF”.
Other members of CSD, Odisha too believe that just getting titles over Community Forest Resource (CFR) Area would not be enough to deal with the Forest Department in the ground and to establish real gram sabha’s control over forest, dissolution of VSS/JFMC by the gram sabha is must which can effectively deal with the violation of FRA being done by MoEF through CAMPA Fund Act, 2016 and with anti-FRA forestry schemes and programme launched by many State Governments. Besides, by discarding VSS, the community people through gram sabha can effectively deal with the nonsense NGOs who have lost their morality and are working with Forest Departments against value and spirit of the historic Forest Rights Act, 2006 across the State.
Of course, besides, these 8 villages in Bolangir district, in other district too i.e. Deogarh, Sundargarh, Kandhamal, Mayurbhanja and Kalahandi etc in Odisha and in other States too, community people protecting their forest have filed claims over their CFR area, discarded VSS and Amaj Jungle Yojana and have formed FP&MC. Even many of them have issued CFR titles. But they urgently need to dissolve their VSS/ Eco Development Committees (EDCs) formed by the Forest/ Wildlife Department in the village to establish real control over forest.