Forest Rights Act: A litmus test for govt to protect forest dwellers

It is now the turn of the BJP-led central government, which won 38 out of 48 reserved seats for Scheduled Tribes across the country, to stand by its promises

By Geetanjoy Sahu
Published: Thursday 25 July 2019
Photo: Getty Images

The Supreme Court on February 13, 2019 had asked authorities of 21 states to file affidavits explaining why evictions, wherever ordered, under the Scheduled Tribes and Other Traditional Forest Dwellers (Recognition of Forest Rights) Act, 2006had not taken place.

The government got a stay order and made a promise to protect the rights of forest dwellers in the next hearing in July 2019.

But, this became a full-blown political debate among political parties in the recent elections. All political parties were very vocal in their election manifestos to protect the forest dwellers from eviction. Now that election are over, promises made during canvassing are going to be tested in the courtroom.

The crisis has been created by litigations questioning the constitutional validity of the FRA in high courts and SC by retired forest officials, wildlife activists and conservation NGOs in 2008.

The main arguments of the petitioners are:

  • The Centre has no power to frame a law on forest land, as land is a state subject
  • Recognition of forest dwellers' claims will lead to disappearance of forest and wildlife

The petitioners shifted their main focus to encroachment of forest lands, presenting FRA as a land grab act for the forest dwellers in 2014.

As their focus on the core constitutional challenge to FRA found little attraction with the courts in 2017, they tried deflecting the attention of the court.

The recent SC order came in response to the petition that FRA was leading to massive destruction of forests through new encroachments.

The arguments by petitioners are fundamentally flawed, empirically weak and driven by ideologies grounded in globally discredited exclusionary conservation. There is no evidence to support the claim of petitioners that FRA has led to large-scale devastation of forests.

However, the petitioners, with their powerful ability to reach out to the media have misled policy-makers, implementing agencies and even the court with their wrong data. They have created a one-sided narrative with their claims that 7.2 million hectares of forests are at risk because of FRA. This is patently wrong.

Forest rights have been recognised over only 5.28 million ha of land till date, two-third of which are community rights where communities can’t change the land use and are mandated to protect forests.

Several empirical studies including works of the Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Centre for Science and Environment and Indian School of Business show that wherever properly implemented, community forest rights have improved conservation.

Out of the rest 1.7 million ha recognised as individual occupation rights, almost all land was not forests, but agricultural land wrongly categorised as forests due to historical factors. This is borne out by studies of Maharashtra and Gujarat government, using satellite data, which show that 92 per cent and 95 per cent of land respectively had no tree cover.

The claims made by petitioners about FRA leading to massive deforestation don’t stand empirical scrutiny.

At the same time, evidence shows that a vast number of forest rights claims have been wrongfully rejected, leading to perpetuation of historical injustices and barely 10 per cent of the potential of FRA has been achieved.

The poor implementation and the crisis in the SC can be both attributed to the lack of political will and investments in FRA, including defending it in the court.

The law remains orphaned, there is little enforcement, the nodal tribal ministry and departments remain under-resourced with no adequate budget for FRA implementation. There was no effective defence of the law in the ongoing SC case for the last four years by the Centre or state governments.

In the absence of this defence, the SC has effectively heard one side of arguments and issued the shocking order.

The current situation, especially the hearing scheduled on July 25, therefore, presents a huge opportunity for political parties to express their commitment and support to the most vulnerable and marginal forest dwelling communities and people based forest conservation.

Political parties through their respective state governments should place before the court the wealth of information, materials. They should also present studies, which demonstrate how the implementation of the FRA, uneven as it is, has resulted in transformative democracy on the ground, the harnessing of economic benefits for local community and the mobilisation of forest dwelling communities for the protection of the precious forest resources.

While many state governments have already expressed their commitment to support the implementation of FRA in letter and spirit, it is now the turn of the Centre, led by the Bharatiya Janata Party, to stand by its promises.

It is going to be a litmus test for the ruling regime as it has won 38 tribal constituencies out of the total 48 reserved seats for the Scheduled Tribes in Parliament.

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