At a time when the Congress-led government at the centre is trying its best to win away tribals from the Maoists by focusing on “inclusive growth”, its own government in Maharashtra seems determined to foil both.
Not only has it been flouting two key laws of the country, Panchayats (Extension to the Scheduled Areas) Act of 1996 (PESA) and Forest Rights Act of 2006 (FRA), for years, it has issued a government resolution (GR) recently to prevent economic benefits these laws provide from reaching the tribals.
PESA granted “ownership” of minor forest produce to the tribals, which was then reinforced when the FRA named bamboo and tendu leaves among these minor forest produces. Both the law empowered the Gram Sabha as owner to trade in these and other items. But the state government is yet to grant these powers to the tribals. A planning commission document said last year that the tribals stood to gain Rs 50,000 crore a year if the rights over minor forest produce are granted to them. In fact, a village in Maharashtra’s Gadchiroli district, Menda-Lekha, earned Rs 1 crore by trading in bamboo last year.
Instead of extending it to rest of the state, chief minister Prithviraj Chavan seems more interested in protecting the interests of private companies and the forest department – the two key identified exploiters of the tribals.
His letter to rural development minister Jairam Ramesh regarding his endeavour to implement the forest rights is self-explanatory.
In his letter dated June 26, Chavan says he has issued a government resolution (GR) “for bringing JFMC (joint forest management committee) under the superintendence and control of Gram Sabha”. He also writes that bamboo and tendu leaves are “not classified as minor forest produce”, but promises to amend the Maharashtra Minor Forest Produce Act to make it so.
The JFMC has nothing to do with forest rights over bamboo and tendu leaves and is not even needed. PESA and FRA say Gram Sabha has the “ownership” over minor forest produce. FRA says this right is being granted “notwithstanding anything contained in any other law for the time being in force”.
But Chavan is harking back to the JFMC concept of 1980s, when neither PESA nor FRA existed. By making management “joint”, he has introduced forest officials into what is purely tribals’ domain and is contrary to the provisions of PESA and FRA. Presence of forest officials will only perpetuate the “historic injustice” against tribals that the preamble of FRA said it sought to address.
In fact, Mohan Hirabhai Hiralal, a social activist fighting for tribal rights in the state, says JFMC is an attempt to “subvert” forest rights of the tribals.
Besides, this GR doesn’t empower the Gram Sabha to issue “transit pass” which is required for the tribals to directly trade bamboo and tendu leaves. The then environment and forests minister Ramesh could bulldoze his way through in April 2011, when he granted rights over bamboo to Menda-Lekha village in Gadchiroli. Chavan himself was, as a union minister, attended that event. Chavan now promises to amend law to give that power to other Gram Sabhas.
Secondly, Chavan explains his failure to rectify the situation immediately also because there exists a contract with Industries Limited (BILT) regarding supply of bamboo to their paper mills. The contract is valid till 2013-14. Chavan says this contract would have to be “cancelled” before granting forest rights and that would be a legally complicated affair.
What he seems to ignore is that forest rights come to the tribals “notwithstanding anything contained in any other law for the time being in force” and also “free from all encumbrances and procedural requirements”, as the FRA says clearly.
Besides, not all source of supply of bamboo to BILT comes from the forest over which the tribals have ownership. As Hiralal suggests, only those sources of bamboo that overlap with that of the tribals needs to go to them. The contract need not be cancelled. The company can renegotiate the rates with the tribals.
But Chavan cites a high court case involving BILT to point out the complications, though the case relates only to “fixing rates” and not to ownership of bamboo, as his letter to Ramesh clearly mentions.