Campaign Criticises Effort By Central Government to Subvert Forest Rights Act Implementation


[A copy of the letter referred to in this statement is pasted below the statement].


The Campaign for Survival and Dignity, a platform of tribal and forest dwellers' mass organisations from eleven States, condemns the ongoing effort by the Central Government to effectively subvert the implementation of the Scheduled Tribes and Other Traditional Forest Dwellers (Recognition of Forest Rights) Act, 2006. This intention was apparent even at the time of notification of the Rules to the Act, which undermined key provisions of the law regarding decision-making bodies, community conservation and procedures for wildlife conservation, while exacerbating the Act's flaws and ambiguities. It has now become even clearer with the issuance of a letter by the Ministry of Panchayati Raj at the Central government, dated 15.02.2008, asking State governments to convene gram sabhas in all the villages across the country for the Act on the 28th of February. This is clearly impossible. Wherever it does take place, it will lead to both misuse and confusion because:


* In the absence of either alternative instructions or clarity in the Rules regarding convening hamlet level gram sabhas, the gram sabhas that will be convened will be those of the gram panchayats €“ which generally cover large areas and multiple villages. Such gram sabhas would have several thousand members. The Campaign and political leaders across parties have repeatedly pointed out that this will render any meaningful and just decision-making impossible. Moreover, in Scheduled Areas, it is illegal and unconstitutional, as it is in direct violation both of the provisions of the Act and of the Panchayats (Extension to Scheduled Areas) Act, 1996.


* Convening gram sabhas for this purpose in a space of 13 days is impossible (indeed, some States reportedly received the letter only on the 20th). This will lead to low attendance or engineered attendance, followed by efforts to fudge the quorum to meet the 66% requirement in the Rules. The result will be unrepresentative Forest Rights Committees (the bodies charged with verifying claims, as per the Rules) and manipulation of the process.


* The Central government has made no effort whatsoever to publicise the provisions of the Act, and most State governments have also not done so. In this context it is laughable that the letter in question says that "Well before this [i.e. before February 28th], the gram panchayats and the members of the divisional and district level committees must understand the entire process and specifically their assigned roles and responsibilities." This is expected to happen within a space of a few days.


Instead of arbitrarily pressurising State governments to meet impossible and ludicrous deadlines, the role of the Central government should be to provide a reasonable timeline, including time for workshops, training, and publicity for forest dwellers, people's organisations and officials. Gram sabhas should be organised only after that, with the gram sabha timings decided at the State level in accordance with local conditions. Moreover, time for constituting hamlet level gram sabhas should also be provided.

This letter is clearly meant to be an eyewash €“ a cover up for the two years during which the Central government delayed, sabotaged and undermined this historic legislation. Instead of compounding its criminal actions by pretending to be concerned about implementation now, the Centre should follow the spirit and letter of this law.

Campaign for Survival and Dignity

9810819301, forestcampaign@gmail.com, http://forestrightsact.awardspace.com


Text of the letter dated Feb 15, 2008, sent by the Minister of Panchayati Raj (Mani Shankar Aiyar) to the Chief Ministers of all states regarding implementation of the FRA:

 

"May I invite your attention to the letter to you from the Hon'ble Prime Minister dated 8 Jan, 2008 highlighting the need for expeditiously implementing the Scheduled Tribes & other Forest Dwellers (Recognition of Forest Rights) Act and Rules.

 

Under the Rules, the State Govt is required to constitute State level Monitoring Committees and Committees at District and Sub Divisional Levels. Clause 6(1) of the Act authorises the Gram Sabhas to initiate the process for determining the nature and extent of individual/Community Forest Rights. In this regard, Gram Panchayats have to convene the meeting of Gram Sabhas wherein the members of the Forest Rights Committee (FRC) should be elected. The FRC is required to collect claim filed in the prescribed formats and given acknowledgement to the claimants, keep proper records of the claimants, verify the claims and present their findings to the Gram Sabhas. The Gram Sabhas are required to pass their resolutions on each individual claim and submit the same to the Sub Divisional Level Committee for further processing. Sub Divisional Level Committees have to ensure that the Gram Sabhas are made aware of their roles and responsibilities, the proforma for filing claims are easily available to the claimants, the gram sabha meetings are conducted in free, open and fair manner with requisite quorum etc. District Level Committees are to finally consider the claims for approval, ensure publication of the approved claims in the record of rights and make copies available to claimants.

 

As can be seen from the above, time bound action is called for at all levels. To properly perform their responsibilities within the time frame provided by the Rules, the FRCs and Gram Sabhas require extensive support in terms of familiarizing them with the provisions dealing with the claims, resolving conflicts, documentation etc. I would suggest you to kindly address these issues on priority.

 

As proposed by the Hon'ble Prime Minister, I suggest that all States across the country may kindly organize Gram Sabhas on the 28th February, 2008. The provisions of the Act and Rules and the roles and responsibilities of Gram Sabhas and FRCs should be explained in these meetings. Well before this, the Gram Panchayats and the members of Divisional and District level Committees must understand the entire process and specifically their assigned roles and responsibilities. Training for this purpose must be organised for the Sub-Divisional Committee members and Pradhans and other PRI representatives much before the date of the proposed meeting of Gram Sabhas.

 

Please take action as suggested above and complete arrangements for holding the Gram Sabhas on 28th February so that the process of Recognizing Forest Rights of Tribals and other Forest Dwellers are launched expeditiously.

 

Regards,

 

Yours sincerely,

                                   

Sd/-

(Mani Shankar Aiyar)