10 interventions government must make to protect forest rights

BJP-led NDA has won 38 out of 48 reserved seats for Scheduled Tribes across the country, of which a majority is from forest-rich areas

By Geetanjoy Sahu
Published: Friday 31 May 2019
10 interventions that government must make to protect forest rights. 
Photo: Getty Images

Promises made, election won and now the time is to deliver. Of all the promises made by the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) in its manifesto, the most vocal was to protect the rights of forest dwellers as guaranteed under the Scheduled Tribe and Other Traditional Forest Dwellers (Recognition of Forest Rights) Act, 2006.

Delivering this promise has become even more significant as the BJP-led National Democratic Alliance (NDA) party has won 38 out of 48 reserved seats for Scheduled Tribes across the country, of which a majority is from forest rich areas.

So, here are 10 major interventions that the BJP-led NDA must make to protect and improve the rights of millions of forest dwellers in the country.

Pending case of 19 lakh forest dwellers

Intervention is required in the ongoing case, where the Supreme Court (SC) sought to evict around 19 lakh forest dwellers whose claims have been rejected. After the February 13, 2019 ruling, the government got a stay order and made a promise to protect the rights of forest dwellers in the next hearing in July 2019.

The government should make three important interventions in the coming hearing:

  • Appeal to the SC to withdraw all its orders related to eviction of forest dwellers;
  • Propose a decentralised mechanism consisting of multi-disciplinary experts to review the rejected and pending claims; and
  • Seek direction from the Court to put on hold all forest clearance cases till the entire Forest Rights Act (FRA) process and especially the community forest rights (CFR) have been fully recognised.

Focus needed on CFR

Currently, the focus of agencies implementing forest rights is increasingly towards the individual forest rights (IFR) and not on the CFR. For example, of the total recognised 19,05,155 claims made till January 31, IFR constitutes 96 per cent. The Report of Rights and Resources Initiative (2015) claims that the effective implementation of community forest rights will result in benefiting, at least 150 million forest dwelling people over a minimum of 40 million hectares (mha) of forest land that they have been managing, using and interacting within more than 1,70,000 villages.

The Ministry of Tribal Affairs should immediately and rigorously implement the provision under CFR, as these are the most pro-conservation provisions of the FRA. And since CFR gives access and management rights to Gram Sabha members over forest resources, it may play an important role in enhancing the livelihood of people, non-commodity outputs and environmental services.

Proper recording forest rights claims

The recognised forest rights claims should have a clear description of the forest right conferred, the demarcation of boundaries and other relevant information. For IFR, the document should also specify the survey number or khata number of the land.

In a recent circular dated April 10, 2015, the Ministry of Tribal Affairs reiterated that the FRA process will only be completed when the record of rights (RoR) has been created. The lack of having proper RoR (7/12) for forest title holders has resulted, amongst others, a denial of credit from financial institutions, mortgaging of land, crop insurance, loan waiver, crop loss compensation during scarcity and various other schemes for farmers. It is a huge nightmare as the occupancy rights under the act is inheritable, but not transferable.

Integrating government schemes with beneficiaries

Presently, there are no institutional arrangements and support mechanisms to integrate and line the department schemes with forest rights beneficiaries.

According to Section 16 of the Forest Rights Act, Amendment Rules, 2012: “the State government shall ensure through its departments especially tribal and social welfare, environment and forest, revenue, rural development, panchayati raj and other departments relevant to upliftment of forest dwelling scheduled tribes and other traditional forest dwellers, that all government schemes including those relating to land improvement, land productivity, basic amenities and other livelihood measures are provided to such claimants and communities whose rights have been recognised and vested under the Act”.

There is increasing recognition that legally secured IFR provides a critical foundation for household income generation and land productivity. Moreover, progress has been made in many countries that opted to secure tenure rights, particularly in Latin American countries, which provided technical and institutional support and targeted policies to improve the productivity of the land. However, these strategies remain absent and their implementation and enforcement is still far from materialising in India.

Accelerate deregulation of minor forest produce rules

A nation-wide deregulation of minor forest produce rules and policies has to be undertaken in an expedited manner. One of the important provisions of FRA is to transfer all powers on the use and governance of non-timber forest products (NTFP) from the forest department to village assemblies. Unfortunately, this possibility has largely been confined to Vidarbha region in Maharashtra and a few villages in Kalahandi District of Odisha, Narmada and Dang districts in Gujarat.

In the rest of the country, state governments continue to resist and create hurdles in the implementation of community rights over NTFP.  The failure to recognise access rights of forest dwellers over NTFP is a perpetuation of historical injustice to India’s forest-dwelling communities and a missed opportunity to democratise forest governance, improve their economic condition and well-being. 

Ensure forest dwellers get benefits of MSP

The Government of India has revised the minimum support price (MSP) of 23 items under minor forest produce (MFP). It has also introduced MSP for 17 new minor forest products in December 2018. The notification requires all the state governments to bring these changes in their respective states but there has not been any significant headway in this direction.

The government has also introduced a scheme titled as ‘Mechanism for Marketing of MFP through MSP and the Development of Value Chain for MFP’ as a social safety measure for the MFP gatherers, who are primarily members of the Scheduled Tribes.

However, there is no institutional mechanism at the local level to ensure forest dwellers get the minimum support price as per these schemes and notification. Middlemen and contractors continue to exploit forest dwellers by paying low value to their collected minor forest products.

Similarly, with the introduction of Goods and Services Tax (GST) of five per cent on several minor forest products and no exemption of 18 per cent GST on minor forest products like Kendu Leaf has created unnecessary roadblocks for the forest-dwelling communities to translate their rights into livelihood. The application of GST on minor forest products should be revisited to assure better income for the forest dwellers. 

Empower Gram Sabhas

The FRA seeks to decentralise forest rights recognition process to Gram Sabha by vesting the power in it to initiate the process for determining the nature and the extent of different types of rights within the local limits of its jurisdiction. The Act also emphasises its role not only in determining CFRs to use, access forest lands and resources but also to frame rules and regulations to use, manage and govern forests within traditional village boundaries.

But, implementation experiences in the last 12 years suggest that Gram Sabhas’ powers have been diluted indiscriminately at all levels. Forests have been diverted for non-forest purposes without their consent, Gram Sabhas have not been informed about the rejected forest rights claims. The Gram Sabhas have also been denied their rights over minor forest products and their rights to use and manage forest resources have been opposed by the forest departments.

Such decisions have violated the letter and spirit of FRA which has assigned substantial role for implementation of the provisions of the Act. It is imperative to recognise and enforce the provisions of FRA that aim to empower Gram Sabhas in the whole process of FRA.

Implement forest rights claims in protected areas

The recognition of forest rights claims in protected areas has been virtually non-existent and thousands of claims filed under FRA lie pending or rejected arbitrarily since the enactment of the Act. The FRA under Section 2(d) defines the term forest land as land of any description falling within any forest area, and including unclassified forests, undemarcated forests, existing or deemed forests, protected forests, reserved forests, sanctuaries and national parks.

Unfortunately, this provision has not been enforced across protected areas in India and has largely been confined to few protected areas like Biligiri Rangaswami Temple (BRT) Tiger Reserve in Karnataka, Odisha’s Simlipal Tiger Reserve and a few villages in the protected areas of Maharashtra and Madhya Pradesh.

The FRA has been bitterly opposed by a few hard-line, powerful conservation groups and retired foresters on the grounds that the implementation will lead to disappearance of forests and wild animals.

In fact, many communities across the country have leveraged FRA to protect forests and biodiversity from destruction by mining, dams and other industrial projects. Niyamgiri and Athirapalli — high value biodiversity hotspots — were protected by communities against destruction using FRA’s legal protection. It’s high time that Ministry of Tribal Affairs steps in to address the confusion among implementing agencies about the applicability of FRA in protected areas.

Train officers to process forest rights

The sub-division and district administration officers, especially revenue, forest and tribal functionaries entrusted with the task of processing forest rights claims have to be systematically trained and equipped to understand not only the procedural requirements under FRA but also the challenges and contexts of forest resource use and access pattern which varies from state to state.

In several instances, it has been found that government officers at the sub-division and district level have no clarity about the provisions of FRA and misinterpret the law by insisting upon a particular type of evidence to process the forest rights claims.

There is a need to enhance both their forest landscape and procedural skills. There are also other challenges at the district and sub-division level in processing forest rights claims and some of them include: Lack of staffs, resources, proper classification and scrutinisation of claims and regular meeting of officers.

Ensure better coordination between MoEF&CC and Ministry of Tribal Affairs

The mandate of FRA requires better coordination and without proper coordination this mandate cannot be carried out. However, over the last 12 years, a series of conflicting laws and orders have been issued by the Ministry of Environment, Forests and Climate Change (MoEF&CC) without consulting the nodal ministry i.e., the Ministry of Tribal Affairs.

Lack of effective coordination between the ministries has not only resulted in delaying the approval of forest rights claims but also in the clearance of several infrastructure projects requiring diversion of forests for non-forest purposes. This has increased operational costs for development projects and denied rights to thousands of forest dwellers to access forest resources.

Effective coordination of MoEF&CC and Ministry of Tribal Affairs at the central level can unify efforts to achieve a goal that benefits all parties involved. The objective of coordination should be to remove distrust and avoid formulation of conflicting laws.

Thus, improving coordination between government ministries both at the central and state level will result in better outcomes and higher quality enforcement of forest rights act. There is a need to create a cooperative, rather than competitive environment.

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