The key piece of forest legislation Forest Rights Act passed in India on 18 December 2006. The law has to do with the rights of forest-dwelling communities to land and other resources, as a result of the continuance of colonial forest laws in India which were denied to them over decades. The Act was notified into force on 31 December 2007. On 1 January 2008, this was followed by the notification of the Rules framed by the Ministry of Tribal Affairs to enhance the practical aspects of the Act. Opponents of the law claim that it will lead to massive forest destruction so it should be repealed and supporters of the Act claim that while including provisions for making conservation more effective and more transparent, it will redress the “historical injustice” committed against forest dwellers.
Studies have shown that in many areas this process either did not take place at all or took place in a highly faulty manner, all the hilly tracts of Orissa were declared government forests without any survey, around 40% of the government forests are “deemed reserved forests” which have not been surveyed.
Under these laws, forest settlement officer has to settle the rights of people living in or depending on the area to be declared as a forest or protected area. This basically requires that officer to enquire into the claims of people to forest produce, land, etc., and, in the case of claims found to be valid, to allow them to continue or to extinguish them by paying compensation. Those whose rights are not recorded during the settlement process are subject to eviction at any time, this leads to harassment, extortion of money and sexual molestation of forest dwellers by forest officials, who exercise absolute authority over forest dwellers’ livelihoods and daily lives. The Statement of Objects and Reasons of the Forest Rights Act describes it as a law intended to correct the “historical injustice” done to forest dwellers by the failure to recognize their rights.
Since time immemorial, the tribal communities of India have been dependent on the forests for livelihoods, existence and have had an integral and close knit relationship with the forests, the relationship was mutually beneficial and not one sided. The already marginalized local dwellers suffered, because in the absence of real ownership of the land, the rights were rarely recognized by the authorities. Forests provide sustenance in the form of minor forest produce, water, grazing grounds and habitat for shifting cultivation. Moreover, vast areas of land that may or may not be forests are classified as “forest” under India’s forest laws, and those cultivating these lands are technically cultivating “forest land”. India’s forests are home to hundreds of millions of people, who live in or near the forest areas of the country, including many Scheduled Tribes. Nearly 250 million people live in and around forests in India, of which the estimated indigenous Adivasi or tribal population stands at about 100 million. To put these numbers in point of view, they would form the 13th largest country in the world, if considered a nation by themselves, even though they cannot be portrayed as representing any singular, monolithic culture.
The reason for this latter phenomenon is India’s forest laws. India’s forests are governed by two main laws, the Indian Forest Act, 1927 which empowers the government to declare any area to be a reserved forest, protected forest or village forest, and the Wild Life (Protection) Act, 1972 which allows any area to be constituted as a “protected area”, namely a wildlife sanctuary, national park, tiger reserve or community conservation area.
- Lack of Awareness
- The forest organization has misinterpreted the FRA as an instrument to regularize infringement instead of a welfare measure for tribal’s.
- Majority of the aggrieved population is naive regarding their rights, unawareness at the lower level of forest officials who are supposed to help process forest rights claims is high.
- Administrative Laziness
- Governments get it opportune to undermine FRA or not bother about it at all in favour of monetary gains, as tribal’s are not a big vote bank in most states.
- Implementation of the act remains the major challenge as acts related to the environment are not entirely obedient with the law, illegal infringements have happened as much as that claims have been unfairly rejected.
- Dilution of Act
- Certain sections of environmentalist raise the concern that FRA give lesser scope for community rights and bow more in the favour of individual rights.
- Community Rights effectively gives the local people the control over forest resources which remains a significant portion of forest revenue making states cautious of vesting forest rights to Gram Sabha.
- Reluctance of the forest bureaucracy to give up control
- There has been purposeful damage by the forest bureaucracy, both at the Centre and the states, and to some extent by big corporate. The corporates fear that they may lose the cheap access to valuable natural resources while the forest bureaucracy fears that it will lose the enormous power over land and people that it currently enjoys.
- Institutional Roadblock
- Gram Sabha prepares rough maps of community and individual claims, which at times often lack technical expertise and suffers from educational incapability.
- Exhaustive process of documenting communities’ claims under the FRA makes the process both cumbersome and disturbing for illiterate tribal’s.
The effective implementation of the Scheduled Tribes and other Forest Dwellers (Recognition of Forest Rights) Act, 2006, which recognizes the individual as well as community rights over forest resources, should have ended the historical injustice caused to the tribal’s by previous governments. But the manner in which various State governments either neglected or slowed its implementation in the post 2006 period speak a lot about the tragedy of forest rights of tribal’s.
The Supreme Court order of February 13, 2019, asking States to expel people whose claims to forest land have been rejected by them, is a conspicuous example of this. The eviction order by the apex court was based on affidavits filed by the States. The Union Government filed a petition before the apex court to stay the eviction order, although the eviction order has been temporarily stayed the rights of tribal’s and other traditional forest dwellers remain highly uncertain. If the stay order gets evacuated, above one million people will be affected straight away. This is the case even though only a small proportion of the total potential claims have been submitted and considered so far. According to the Ministry of Tribal Affairs, up to September 30, 2018, 4.2 million individual and community resources claims were filed, of which, 1.9 million claims were rejected.
Once the 150 million probable beneficiaries of FRA submit their claims, at the existing refusal rates, several millions of tribal’s and other forest dwellers would be deprived of their expected forest rights. It may be mentioned that in the 133 parliamentary constituencies in India, the Forest Rights Act is one of the core issues in elections, as above 30 per cent of the eligible voters are the potential beneficiaries of FRA. It is not the fault of the people that many of them do not have required documentary confirmation. Rather, the State governments have made no systematic efforts to recognize and record the individual and community rights of forest dwellers.
In most countries in Europe, forests are largely owned and managed by individuals and local communities, which not only help in generating incomes for them but also in conserving and using forest resources in a sustainable manner. Mexico, for example, has handed over 70 per cent of its forests to communities for management. In Vietnam, close to 30 per cent of the forests are managed by the local community. India’s Forest Rights Act is also a step forward in the same direction. It empowers the communities to use, manage and govern forests for their livelihood as well as for the conservation and protection of forests. But its poor implementation remains an issue.
The study of e-green watch data by Bharati Institute of Public Policy shows that plantations by forest agencies are being done on land used by tribal communities and other traditional forest dwellers that are entitled to these lands under FRA. One cannot rule out increased violence and protest by forest dwellers because of such recklessness in the implementation of the Compensatory Afforestation Fund Act, 2016 (CAF). Alternatively, if gram sabhas are involved in CAF Plantation Programme, about 30 million hectare of forest will come under effective protection and regeneration. It will also help meet the climate change improvement goal for negative emission through additional carbon confiscation. Besides, 65 out of the 103 districts affected by Left-wing extremism have high individual forest right (IFR) and community forest right (CFR) potentials. Implementing FRA in these districts will not only build a relationship of trust and bond between them, but also lead to the development of forest dwellers and the government, thereby reducing land conflict, Naxalism and underdevelopment.
A few success stories
Despite the poor implementation of FRA in most States, there are some success stories as well. In places where district collectors have played a pro-active role, tribal’s and other forest dwellers benefited from recognition of both individual and community forest rights. In Panchgaon village in Chandrapur district and Mendalkha village in Gadchiroli the communities were given the ownership right over bamboo in the forest which helped double the productivity of bamboo in about three years. Besides, the communities successfully bargained collectively with traders for higher prices.
The way forward
Keeping in view the enormous economic, social and ecological benefits of individual and community forest management, the Centre in cooperation with State governments should implement the Forest Rights Act, 2006 in its right spirit.
The way forward would include: reviewing all rejected and pending claims to IFR and CFR expeditiously, ensuring regular meetings of district and sub-division level committees to consider and approve IFR and CFR claims in a time-bound manner, and building capacities of gram sabhas for governance and management of community forest resources. Besides leveraging modern technology to map and monitor the implementation of FRA, the forest bureaucracy must also be reformed to serve as service providers to gram sabhas. There is a need to provide marketing and MSP support to non-timber forest products and create institutional mechanisms to support community forest enterprises for value addition. Also, it is important that the Ministry of Tribal Affairs at the Central and State levels are strengthened with human and financial resources to help implement FRA on a mission mode.