If we take a closer look at the forest cover, its density, regeneration capacity, and the potential of the catchment areas to hold rainwater and release it gradually into the rivers to make them perennial, we will find that we have traveled the long road to destruction in just a couple of decades in the central Indian State of Madhya Pradesh where successive governments have done everything under their command to destroy vast forest areas. Those in power talk of the livelihood needs of the rapidly growing population of forest dwellers and other villagers but obviously what motivates them the most is the vote bank politics so essential to remain riveted to the seats of power.
Many senior serving forest officers in Madhya Pradesh are describing 4 June 2015 as a Black Day for ecology, green cover and forests as on this day the State Government issued two extraordinary gazette notifications to bring in force the “Madhya Pradesh Protected Forest Rules, 2015” (Under these rules “Protected area” has the same meaning as assigned to it under The Wildlife Protection Act, 1972) and the “Madhya Pradesh Village Forest Rules, 2015”. These rules will sound the death knell for forests and the already threatened wildlife.
In its first order in the famous Godavarman case in 1996, the Supreme Court defined the word “forest” in applying the Forest Conservation Act (FCA) of 1980. Prior to this some state governments were applying the term only to “Reserve Forests” and with this limited interpretation, they found the route to “de-reserve” other protected forests for commercial or industrial use.
In 1996, the Supreme Court applied the dictionary meaning to the word forest implying any forest, irrespective of ownership, would be subject to provisions of the Forest Conservation act which specifies that no state government can allow the use of any forest land for any non-forestry purpose without prior approval from the Central Government. The new Rules introduced by the State Government, which are contrary to the letter and spirit of the 1996 Supreme Court order, would open the floodgate for forest destruction.
Under the Madhya Pradesh Protected Forest Rules enforced this month by the State Government, the district collectors have been given the powers to attach a Protected Forest to any village. As per the new dispensation, the Collector is authorised to attach any Protected Forest or a part of it, not lying within any urban area or a Protected Area to a village. Obviously to lend credibility and give the impression that checks and balances are inbuilt in the newly introduced system, it has been specified that the attachment of the Protected Forest will be done by the Collector in consultation with the Divisional Forest Officer (DFO) and in accordance with the orders issued by the Government. The State Government has come up with these Rules by suppressing the earlier notification of February 2, 2005 using powers under Section 32 of the Indian Forest Act, 1927.
The Protected Forest Rules mandate that the “Gram Sabha” (village general body) shall constitute a Gram Van Samiti (village forest committee) for the purpose of managing the protected forest attached to that village and the responsibility would include the protection and development of the protected forest. A significant power that has been vested in this committee is that with the approval of the Government, the village forest committees will be able to enter into an agreement with a company or a body corporate, owned, managed and controlled by the Government or engaged in a manufacturing activity for which any forest produce is a raw material, to share any forest produce’from that protected forest attached to it as consideration for the investment made by that company or body corporate towards the development of that Protected Forest.
These Rules also permit Villagers to graze their cattle in Protected Forest attached to a village. The village forest committees have also been given the power to permit grazing by cattle from other villages on payment of a fee to be charged for grazing in the attached protected forest. The villagers will also be able to obtain, either free of charge or on payment to the village forest committee their “nistar and paidawar” requirements from the attached Protected Forest. The expression “Nistar requirements” and “Paidawar requirements” mean the Nistar and Paidawar, required for the purpose of bonafide domestic consumption and livelihood needs. These would include timber of unreserved trees, dry fallen wood not fit for timber, dry bamboos and green bamboos, grasses other than Rusa, Khus or Sabai grass, thorns other than those of Khair and Kardhai, leaves, excluding tendu leaves, bark of un-reserved trees. Nistar would also include minor minerals, surface boulders, murum, sand, chhui and clay for works permitted under the rules within the same village for dwelling purposes. “Paidawar” means and includes all edible roots, fruits and flowers, naturally exuded gum, except the gum from Kullu trees, honey and wax.
To address the issue of protection and conservation, it is specified under the newly introduced rules that the District Planning Committee shall in consultation with Divisional Forest Officer, will fix rates payable to the village forest committee for timber and fuel wood for Nistar, including occupational, Nistar removed from attached protected forests. It has also been specified that an officer not below the rank of Range Officer shall from time to time in consultation with the Gram Van Samiti specify the area from which the nistar is to be obtained each year and the villagers shall obtain their nistar only from such areas.
Under the new Rules, the clearing and breaking up of land for cultivation or any other purpose is prohibited in protected forest attached to the village but the exception has been granted for schools, dispensary, hospital, angannwadi, drinking water supply and water pipeline, Construction of village ponds, water and rainwater harvesting structures, minor irrigation canal, and water distribution channels, construction and maintenance of roads and installation of photovoltaic power generating systems. One can only imagine what the Protected Forests would be reduced to once construction and building activity for developing these facilities are taken up across the state.
The State Government had enacted an Act in 1964 and took over the trade in Tendu Leaves. In order to give more benefits to forest dwellers in collection and trade of Tendu Leaves, the Madhya Pradesh State Minor Forest Produce (Trading & Development) Co-operative Federation Limited was formed in 1984. In 1988, the State Government decided to involve cooperative societies in the trade of Tendu Leaves. For this, a three tier Co-operative structure was designed. M.P.State Minor Forest Produce Federation was placed at the apex level of this structure. At the primary level, Primary Forest Produce Co-operative Societies were constituted. At the secondary level, District Forest Produce Co-operative Unions were formed. The average annual production of Tendu Leaves in Madhya Pradesh is around 25 lakh standard bags, which is nearly 25% of the total Tendu Leaves production of the country.
Looking to the huge profit margin of 1989 season the State Government distributed Rs. 150 crores as incentive wages to the Tendu leaf pluckers out of the profit of 1989 season. Keeping in tune with the 73rd Amendment to the Constitution, the State Government decided to pass on all the net income from the trade of minor forest produce to the societies.
The State Government also brought into force the Madhya Pradesh Lok Vaniki Rules in 2002 under the Madhya Pradesh Lok Vaniki Adhiniyam (People’s Forestry Act) to allow the management of “tree-clad” private and revenue areas, by the landowners, the village Panchayat or the Gram Sabha. Since there was no proper demarcation between the private and government land, people could encroach the government land and resort to large-scale illegal felling. With many corrupt and unscrupulous patwaris on their side, they were also able to convert the government forests to private forests and deplete it.
Under the national forest policy of 1988, participation of local people was envisaged as necessary for conservation and development of forests. On June 1, 1990, the Union Ministry for Environment and Forests had directed all the State Governments that tribals and other communities living in and around forests have their first rights on the forest produce. Subsequently, the State Government paved the way for people’s participation in forest protection and management.
The previous Congress-led United Progressive Alliance Government had got the Scheduled Tribes (Recognition of Forest Rights) Bill cleared in Parliament and the Scheduled Tribes and Other Traditional Forest Dwellers (Recognition of Forest Rights) Act, 2006, also called the Forest Rights Act was brought in force on 31 December 2007 to vest the forest rights and occupation in forest land to the Scheduled Tribes residing in forest areas ignoring strong objections that were raised by the Union Ministry of Environment and Forests (MoEF) at the outset. Notwithstanding the claim by supporters of this Act that it has helped in addressing the “historical injustice” committed against forest dwellers, foresters are unanimous in their assertion that this one Act has lead to massive forest destruction.
When contacted, a cross-section of State forest department officers presented an absolutely bleak picture. A forest officer at the Additional Principle Chief Conservator of Forest level recalled how as a DFO he could see sudden decline and lack of performance in terms of afforestation when the Forest committees of the villagers were involved to manage the forests in the early 90s of the 20th Century. He also drew attention to the complete absence of forest guards from beat duty once the villagers took up their role as members of the forest committees. Today with so much cash flowing directly to the villagers through the forest department, most of the official working hours of the forest rangers are spent in collecting and presenting cheques and ensuring the payments reach the workers and beneficiaries. This one exercise leaves them with hardly any time to carry out their routine rounds of the forest, what to talk of conservation and protection activities, another forest officer pointed out adding the forest staff at the cutting edge level is also engaged almost full time in tendu leaf collection activity rather than afforestation and regular forestry work at a crucial time just before the arrival of monsoon . He also put a question mark on the role of the district Collectors by stating that a probe across districts regarding the outcome and also the number and frequency of the forest potection Task Force meetings supposed to be held at the district level would expose huge chinks and reveal what kind of priority the collectors are attaching to forest and forestry related works.