Forest rights rules inconsonant with act

will the new forest rights rules empower forest communities? There are mixed responses to the recently released draft of the Scheduled Tribes and other Traditional Forest Dwellers (Recognition of Forest Rights) Rules, 2007. Announced on June 19, the rules are meant to operationalise the parent act. The Union ministry of tribal affairs has sought comments.

Activists say the rules are not in harmony with the act. The focus of the act is to empower the forest rights holders, but, they say, the rules just enlist the duties of the forest communities. According to them, rule 28 (6) says that forest rights committees have to authenticate forest maps with the revenue and forest authorities. This, according to Madhu Sarin, a tribal rights activist, "will make gram sabhas vulnerable to interventions from authorities who may influence their legitimate claims'.But officials in the ministry say the rules are meant to empower gram sabhas.

But activists say the rule states that gram sabhas may seek assistance of the authorities for managing forest resources. However, the rules don't clarify that the gram sabha can override the forest department on issues relating to areas over which they have legal rights. It is also silent on the institutions to resolve disagreements between the gram sabhas and the forest department.

Sarin says that rule 18 (b) is vague. It states that land granted to forest dwellers can be used for "sustainable bona fide livelihood activities'. But it restricts the communities from using the land for "ecologically undesirable commercial use'. But the rule does not clarify the commercial use, says Sarin. "This may be misused by the officials.'

According to experts, the rules have not properly acknowledged the traditional rights of forest communities. "They have limited the rights as part of the joint forest mechanism,' says Sarin. But the ministry says the rules preserve the rights of the tribal communities.