ISSN (Print) - 0012-9976 | ISSN (Online) - 2349-8846

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Contested Spaces, Democratic Rights

People and Forests Today

The Maharashtra government's village forest rules seek to overturn the rights regime established in the letter of the law by the Scheduled Tribes and Other Traditional Forest Dwellers (Recognition of Forest Rights) Act and the Panchayats (Extension to the Scheduled Areas) Act 1996 in terms of both community rights, as well as the rights over minor forest produce. Moreover, the rules write away the future rights of the community over forests and their management and control over minor forest produce in perpetuity. These are also ultra vires of the rules regime agreed and enacted by an act of Parliament.

The Maharashtra government’s gazette notification begins ironically enough by citing the Indian Forest Act 1927 and further reaffirms the resolve to “put in place a robust framework for empowerment of village panchayats and gram sabhas as informed participants in the forests and natural resource management; with particular reference to communities and areas not covered under PESA or for communities not eligible for rights under The Scheduled Tribes and Other Traditional Forest Dwellers (Recognition of Forest Right) Act, 2006” (Government of Maharashtra 2014). The notification states the rules that pertain to Indian Forests (Maharashtra) (Regulation of assignment, management and cancellation of village forests) Rules 2014. The particular formulation and the earlier citation of the Indian Forest Act 1927 creates a sense of déjà vu as it brings back an almost 90-year old dormant formulation within the Indian Forest Act 1927 back to life in the most insidious manner. This one act has seminal ramifications across the entire terrain governed by the Panchayat (Extension to the Scheduled Areas) Act (PESA) 1996 and the Forest Rights Act (FRA). The ramifications are not just limited to the state of Maharashtra alone. At the heart of all this is the issue of rights of the communities in the Schedule V regions as well as the rights of the “forest dwellers.” What are these rules then and why introduce them now?

In the context of India’s past the forests have always loomed large over our imagination. In a case of twisted irony emperor Asoka addressed the forest dwellers stating that even in remorse due to the carnage in the Kalinga war he had the might to decisively deal with them if they did not obey his commands. His statement is quite revealing. It at once establishes the claim of the state over the forest resources and also tacitly recognises the rights of the forest dwellers. It is more of an invitation to a dialogue rather than a call for decimation. It also implied that the emperor did not have decisive control over the forest and its resources. The state in precolonialIndia refused to claim monopoly rights over forest resources. The precolonial state also recognised the implicit principle of community control over the forests and was willing to negotiate with the forest dwellers, thus recognising the principle of community rights. The precolonial state thus clearly understood its limitation and was willing to work with the communities and did not question the basic foundation of the shared relationship between the forests and the communities.

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