NEW DELHI: Government's plantation projects under the compensatory afforestation fund scheme cannot be taken up on forest land where forest dwellers' rights have already been recognized, the tribal affairs ministry (MoTA) has said.
Jual Oram, union tribal affairs minister in his reply to a question raised in Lok Sabha said that the forest rights act empowers "forest right holders, gram sabhas and village level institutions in areas where there are any holders of forest right, to ensure that the habitat of forest dwelling scheduled tribes and other traditional forest dwellers is preserved from any form of destructive practices affecting their cultural and natural heritage."
"Thus, the forest land on which titles are recognized under FRA cannot be used for the purpose of compensatory afforestation." According to experts, plantation drives have been carried out in forest land where forest dwellers' rights have been already recognized in Odisha, Maharashtra, Jharkhand, parts of Andhra Pradesh, in violation of the forest rights act 2006. Forest dwellers have protested against these plantation drives by the forest department in several parts of the country.
Oram's reply at least clarifies that such plantation drives cannot be taken up in forest land where individual or community forest rights have already been recognised.
Strangely, in reply to a similar question raised in Rajya Sabha, minister of state (environment) didn't mention any provision of taking the gram sabha's or forest right holders' consent for compensatory afforestation projects. Rajya Sabha MP, Hussain Dalwai had asked whether consent of gram sabha has been taken for compensatory afforestation projects on forest land. On this, the union environment ministry has stated that: "Compensatory afforestation on the government forest is done as per the working plan prescriptions of the government forest prepared as per working plan code approved by the ministry. Concerns of tribal people and forest dwellers as per forest rights act are incorporated in the working plan prescriptions." Dalwai had asked details of cases where consent of gram sabha had not been taken to which Sharma replied that the question of such cases "does not arise."
"The environment ministry completely contradicts the tribal affairs ministry. They are not on the same page. Since the tribal affairs ministry deals with rights and livelihoods of forest dwellers, their decision is important. We know that in several states the forest department has been targeting forest land where forest rights have already been recognised," said Chittaranjan Pani of Odisha based Vasundhara. Tushar Dash of Community Forest Rights - Learning and Advocacy (CFR-LA) said in a note that the environment ministry's "statement flies in the face of the demands made by forest rights groups and tribal organizations across the country to either repeal the compensatory afforestation fund act or make suitable amendment to comply with forest rights act and to make provisions for prior informed consent of the gram sabhas in the implementation of compensatory afforestation projects... more than 3000 gram sabhas from across the country have petitioned the tribal affairs ministry on land and forest rights violation by compensatory afforestation projects, but the tribal affairs ministry has not taken any concrete action."
Most state governments had been facing severe shortage of land to conduct compensatory afforestation. Every time any forest land is diverted for non-forest purposes like mining or industry, the user agency—private or public-sector project is supposed to "afforest" an area of the same size of the forests that were diverted, to make up for the ecological loss. Since these plantations do not immediately provide the ecological services that the natural forest that was cut down would provide, the law requires the user agency to compensate the loss by paying the "net present value (NPV)" of the forests for the next 50 years. The NPV, calculated by a panel of experts is anywhere between Rs 5 to 11 lakh depending on the type and quality of forests that were diverted.
TOI had highlighted last year that dense natural forests around some villages in Odisha are being cleared to conduct compensatory afforestation. Forest communities have been protesting these plantations for years now. The particularly vulnerable tribal groups (PVTGs), who are entirely forest dependent, do not approve of the species that are being planted as they do not supplement their diverse food basket. The plantations are also causing a fodder scarcity for elephants.