Mutual suspicion seen between the forest administration and tribal population

With the government re-evaluating strategies in the wake of the Dantewada attack, the Union Ministry of Environment and Forests is suggesting that the Thirteenth Finance Commission's forestry grants be used to include a psychological angle to the battle against the Naxalites.

Seven naxal-affected States — Chhattisgarh, Jharkhand, Orissa, Madhya Pradesh, Maharashtra, Andhra Pradesh and West Bengal — have already formulated divisional plans to use their share of the Rs.5,000 crore grants-in-aid to improve forest administration and infrastructure, and make the attitude of the forest department more people-friendly. In fact, Dantewada itself is one of the 14 divisions whose plans the Ministry has broadly approved.

“It is no coincidence that many naxal-infested areas are also thickly-forested with large tribal populations,” said Union Minister of State for Environment and Forests Jairam Ramesh. “Of course, it is the Home Ministry which is dealing with the law and order aspect of the naxal problem, but I think the forest department can contribute to solving the development dimension of the problem… Fighting Naxalism is not just a gun battle, it is a psychological battle.”

He pointed to the success of the anti-naxal efforts in several districts of Andhra Pradesh which have also seen “a complete transformation in the attitudes of forest officials in the last five to six years.”

On the other hand, he said a recent trip to Naxalite areas in Maharashtra showed a complete disconnect and mutual suspicion between the forest administration and the tribal population, each viewing the other as overlords and interlopers respectively.

The Commission's funding — which adds up to over Rs.2,000 crore for the seven States involved — could improve matters by incentivising service in these areas, improving access to forest areas and giving greater attention to the Joint Forest Management Committees (JFMCs).

These JFMCs, currently viewed as creations of the forest department, need to be restructured to bring in greater participation of local communities and elected panchayats, said Mr. Ramesh.

In a letter addressed to Home Minister P. Chidambaram on March 22, Mr. Ramesh suggested that the issue be raised with the Chief Ministers to ensure that the grants were used productively to implement divisional plans in Left-wing extremism-affected areas.

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