The implementation of the Scheduled Tribes and other Traditional Forest Dwellers (Recognition of Forest Rights) Act in Madhya Pradesh faces a host of problems due to a strange interpretation of the Act by the Forest Department.

While the department's opposition to the Act is no secret — several petitions have been filed against it in the Supreme Court by retired forest officials or organisations run by them — new information obtained from officials in the State suggests the department has done more than merely oppose the Act.

According to the Act, Adivasis living on forest lands on or before December 13, 2005 can claim for rights over it. But the department has added another cut-off date for the process, by which they have had to be present on the land they claim till January 1, 2008, when the rules governing the Act became effective.

This means that all those Adivasis who have been living on forest lands before December 2005 — and hence are eligible under the Act — but who were evicted by the department before January 2008 would fall out of its ambit.

“Yes, such cases would be ineligible under the Act,” a senior forest official told The Hindu on condition of anonymity.

Ministry circular

Probably keeping this in mind, the Ministry of Environment and Forests had issued a circular two years ago, requesting “all State/Union Territory governments not to resort to eviction of forest dwellers, including tribal, other than ineligible encroachers, till the complete survey is carried out for recognition of such people and their right on forest land as provided in the guidelines dated 18.9.1990 issued under the Forest (Conservation) Act, 1980.” Interestingly, this circular came out in July 2008, by which time many evictions had already been made.

Non-cooperation

A recent letter by Union Home Secretary G.K. Pillai to the department underscored its non-cooperation in implementing the Act. However, according to a written reply of the State Forest Minister in the Vidhan Sabha, 55,630 encroachments — out of a total 1, 60,121encroachments identified by the department — were evicted as on October 2007.

The department's logic does not seem to find favour with Chief Minister Shivraj Singh Chauhan, who is going to embark on a state-wide Van Adhikar Yatra soon to distribute the over 1.2 lakh settled claims.

“The Forest Department's view is wrong and will not be entertained. If the people evicted can prove that they had been living on their lands before 2005, their rights will be restored,” Mr. Chauhan [had] told The Hindu recently.

The stand of the department on gram sabhas in Scheduled Areas, which is informed (wrongly) by the Indian Forest Act 1927, is also quite interesting. The Panchayats (Extension to Scheduled Areas) Act, 1996 provides complete autonomy to the gram sabha over all matters relating to the village, including the utilisation of natural resources.

However, according to Forest Minister Sartaj Singh's written reply in the Vidhan Sabha in the recently concluded monsoon session, there is no provision of consultation with the gram sabha in the matters of minor forest produce or other natural resources that fall under the village limits.