Black Day for ecology and forest cover

4 June 2015 was a Black Day for ecology and forest cover as on this day the Government of the central Indian State of Madhya Pradesh had 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.

These Rules suppress the earlier notification of February 2, 2005. They have been notified using powers under Section 32 of the Indian Forest Act, 1927.

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 in June 2015, 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. It’s a million dollar question: How effective or one-sided would be this consultation given the heirarchy that’s inbuilt in the district administration?

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 these 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.