An official vendetta

THE minister for environment and forests (MEF), Rajesh Pilot, is in the line of fire. Environmentalists and grassroot NGos have asked Pilot to immediately withdraw a circular urging for the nomination of a van mukhiya from all the state panchayats. Critics have termed the move as a "retrogressive step" violating the spirit of the 73rd amendment to the Constitution of India, the National Forest Policy (NFP), 1988, and Joint Forest Management (JFM).

On December 7, 1995, the inspector general of forests, M F Ahmed, sent a circular to forest secretaries of all states and the union territories of India, for countrywide nominations of van mukhiyas by the divisional forest officer in consultation with the village panchayat.

"Instead of carrying forward the spirit of the enlightened NFP, 1988, it sets the clock backwards," said S R Hiremath, convenor of the National Committee for Protection of Common Land Resources, a joint forum of organisations and individuals working on environmental and rural developmental issues.

He further added that "this would concentrate the power not in the people, that is the village forest committee, but in bureaucracy and selected political leaders, generally the panchayat pradhan".

But ministry officials brand the allegations as "totally baseless". "The NGOs are unnecessarily creating a controversy. And these rules are just guidelines for the state governments and it's upto them to implement the rules," said a senior official.

Strongly criticising the powers attributed to van mukhiyas in the clause 'Role of van mukhiya'- such as "shall recommend the names and shares of beneficiaries entitled to the usufructs from the plantation areas depending on the services rendered in protection and upkeep" - the NG0s feel that this would undermine the role and function of village forest committees and hamper people's participation.

Item number 10 of the circular which states that van mukhiyas "may be given upto 10 per cent from the proceeds of each plantation depending upon his performance ...", has particularly incurred the critics' wrath. This, says Hiremath, "is a dangerous provision, which will make van mukhiyas not only unduly influential, but will make him act like a contractor with the forest department".

The proposal seems to represent a desperate and malicious attempt by the forest department for a total control, and illustrates the unwillingness of bureaucrats and politicians to decentralise power, feels Ramachandra Guha, noted writer and environmentalist.

Says Guha, "One wonders what will be the fate of Panchayati Raj, if bureaucrats can likewise appoint local mukhiyas to oversee education, health, animal husbandry programmes, generously granting them one-tenth of the proceeds."

The circular seems to undermine the village communities' role in plantations, management, protection and benefit-sharing aspects, feel some experts; it defeats the very purpose Of JFM - started in 1990 and presently adopted by 16 states officially - by involving middlemen like van mukhiyas. But ministry officials, unfazed, maintain that only van mukhiyas can effectively communicate with the village forest community on a day-to- day basis.

Today, only a few areas of Orissa, Andhra Pradesh, Haryana and Gujarat have village level forest protection committees. It is felt that in states like Uttar Pradesh and Karnataka which have large forest areas and equally large number of forest dependent communities, government officials have been systematically opposing greater community involvement in forest management.

Hiremath, in a letter written to Pilot criticising the ministry's move, says, "We have taken sufficient care to analyse the situation scientifically and also recommend solutions or alternatives; the best example is the policy analysis document - Leasing of Forest Lands to Industry, by the World Wide Fund for Nature-India, and endorsed by over 200 leading NGOs."