Panchayats in tribal areas will soon be controlling forest management at the ground level, replacing the control of the Forest Department.

At a meeting held earlier this week between Union Minister of State for Environment and Forests Jairam Ramesh and Union Minister for Rural Development and Panchayati Raj C.P. Joshi, it was decided to remove Joint Forest Management Committees (JFMCs) from the control of the District Forest Officer and instead bring them under the control of the gram sabhas and panchayats. This will be implemented in the tribal areas which come under PESA, or the Panchayat (Extension to Scheduled Areas) Act, 1996.

Empowering tribals

JFMCs are the basic unit of participatory forest management at the local level, meant to include the views of all stakeholders. However, since they are headed by forest officials, who are often accused of harassing the tribals, there is little trust between the JFMCs and the local community in tribal areas. Maoists have exploited this mistrust to attract tribals to their cause.

With this step to put the panchayat institutions in charge of local forest management, the government hopes to empower tribal communities and counter the Maoist influence.

Last month, Mr. Ramesh had said that “it is no coincidence that many Naxal-infested areas are also thickly-forested with large tribal populations,” and had suggested that the Forest Department contribute to solving the “development dimension” of the Naxal problem by involving more tribal communities in forest management.

Currently, about Rs. 1,000 crore in funding is routed through the one lakh JFMCs across the country for various forestry-related schemes. The money would now be routed through the panchayats in tribal areas. Forest Department staff will be made accountable to the panchayats on relevant issues. Panchayat institutions will be consulted before declaring their lands as wildlife reserves and their consent will be needed to declare a community reserve.

The Ministry of Environment and Forests will examine how to make the Indian Forest Act, 1927 and the Forest Conservation Act, 1980 compliant with the PESA.