Issuing a stern warning to the country’s forest bureaucracy, Union forest minister Jairam Ramesh said officials who fail to implement the Forest Rights Act, 2006, will be liable to face action.

After the revolutionary step of handing over full community forest rights to Mendha, the first village in the country to get community right to harvest and sell bamboo, Ramesh told the forest officials that they need to change their mindset. “You cannot save forests without the involvement of people. And to involve people, it’s imperative to give them a stake. That is what the Act intends – to give individual and communities living in and around forests a right to have their say and make use of minor forest produce,” Ramesh said here on Wednesday.

The historic event was marked by handing over of the transit pass (book), required for movement of the bamboo after its sale, to the Gram Sabha of Mendha. The Gram Sabha and not the forest department will now regulate bamboo harvesting and its sale in the village.

Ramesh’s warning to forest officials assumes importance in view of their reluctance to implement the provisions on community forest rights. The law was passed in 2006 and its rules and regulations were framed in 2008. Yet, it was not implemented anywhere in the country – till Mendha Lekha happened. In fact, a few days ago, in response to an appeal by Ramesh, the state’s principal chief conservator of forests A K Joshi had replied. He expressed reservations and claimed that the implementation could be detrimental for forest conservation. Ramesh lauded chief minister Prithviraj Chavan for taking the bold and courageous step to implement the FRA in its true spirit.

“Today I want to send a loud and clear message that the Forest Rights Act overtakes the archaic Forest Conservation Act, 1927, which pitted the tribals against the forest department. FRA was being misinterpreted causing delay in its implementation. But from today, this will change. Bamboo is liberated. The true implementation of FRA, by passing on the financial benefits of community rights, begins today,” said Ramesh.

After bamboo, the next big step would be giving a similar right on tendu leaf, Mahua and wax for entitled communities, hinted Ramesh. Tendu and bamboo are the gross revenue earners for the forest department and at the same time a major source of corruption.

Ramesh along with Maharashtra chief minister Chavan, Planning Commission member-secretary Sudha Pillai, state home minister R R Patil, forest minister Patangrao Kadam, trbal development minister Babanrao Pachpute, environment and cultural affairs minister Sanjay Deotale, local MLAs, top forest officials and Sunita Narain from the Centre for Science and Environment, New Delhi, and social activists like Mohan Hirabhai Hiralal of Vrikshamitra had supported Mendha village in its 20-year-long struggle to claim its community right. Village elder Devaji Tofa and the disciplined gram sabha which had the conviction to declare itself government at the village level, were instrumental in achieving this revolutionary success.

Chavan said the handing over of the TP book to the gram sabha was not a small village function but a historical event. He noted that it was perhaps the first time that so many dignitaries had converged at a small village like this. He exhorted the people not to misuse the new power given to them and use it judiciously with responsibility so that forests are saved while sustaining livelihoods. He announced that a bamboo processing zone would be set up at Chamorshi in the district. He would also take up starting of an office of the National Bamboo Mission here, he said.

Source: (Hindustan Times, 28th April 2011, Nagpur edition)