New Delhi: Pulling up Odisha authorities for taking decisions that were in violation of the Forest Rights Act (FRA) and could deny gram sabhas (village councils) control over community forests, the Union tribal affairs ministry has asked the state government to make amends, as reported by various newspapers on 9 September.

The FRA Act has been a bone of contention for quite some time as it empowers gram sabhas to decide the fate of the forests and allow or reject the diversion of forests for purposes like mining or other developmental projects.

The Odisha government’s state-level monitoring committee (SLMC) (for FRA Act) took two decisions at a meeting in July. It allowed government body Vana Surakshya Samiti (VSS) additional rights to manage forest resources and decided to co-opt members for various committees.

“It is observed that two of the decisions taken in the SLMC meeting are in violation of the FRA Act 2006 and the Scheduled Tribes and other Traditional Forest Dwellers Rules 2008 ... These decisions of SLMC are not in the letter and spirit of the FRA and may undo the good work done by the State so far and derail the process of vesting of forest rights in the State," said a letter (dated 20 August ) by Arun Jha, secretary of the tribal affairs ministry to Odisha’s chief secretary Gokul Chandra Pati.

According to the letter, the SLMC had decided that VSS, nurtured by the Odisha government over the years, be given community forest resource rights to sustainably manage the forests and forest resources. Jha points out that this is violation of the Forest Rights rules and, as per the law, there is no such provision.

Experts working in Odisha point out that VSSs, formed by the Odisha forest department, getting rights over community forests would take away power from gram sabhas as these VSSs are mostly controlled by forest officials.

Jha also said in the letter out that SLMC’s decision to make superintendents of police district-level committee members and sub-divisional police officers members of sub-divisional-level committees violates the Act and its rules.

“This again is a violation of FRA 2006 and the Forest Rights rules. There is no provision or scope in the FRA of the Forest Rights Rules to co-opt any additional members," the letter said.

“The ministry is appreciative of the work undertaken by the state of Odisha and orders and guidelines passed by state government are held in high regard as best practices. You are therefore requested to personally look into the matter and withdraw any such instructions, if communicated to the implementing officers," the letter added.

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