India must strengthen the mechanisms of natural resource management that is people-centric and sustainable to ensure economic and social stability
India has some of the most significant laws that recognise the right of people over natural resources and their role in its governance. This has been particularly emphasised in regulations that pertain to forest and mineral resources.
The main premise behind these regulations is that natural resource conservation (and exploitation) in India is intricately related to the lives and livelihoods of people. There is a critical overlap between the country’s richest forests, mineral-bearing areas and some of the country’s poorest, most deprived and marginalised people. Thus, there must be mechanisms to strike a balance between developmental needs, natural resource conservation and people’s rights and well-being.
For forests, the flagship people-centric law is the Scheduled Tribes and Other Traditional Forest Dwellers (Recognition of Forest Rights) Act (2006), simply known as the Forest Rights Act (FRA).
It ‘recognises’ the rights of forest-dwelling communities to use and manage forest resources. They are vested with three kinds of rights — individual rights (for occupation and cultivation); community rights (for grazing, fuel wood collection, fishing, ownership and disposal of non-timber forest produce or NTFP); and the rights to protect, regenerate, conserve and manage community forest resource (CFR) areas. With more than 150 million forest dwellers, the scope of FRA is thus immense to protect their livelihoods, as well as to manage forestlands in a sustainable manner.
For minerals, the vision of people-centric resource governance and their right to benefit from such resource extraction has been emphasised through India’s central mining law. The Mines and Minerals (Development and Regulation) Act (MMDR 1957) was amended in 2015 to institute District Mineral Foundation (DMF) as a mechanism of benefit-sharing with local communities.
The precise objective of DMF is to ‘work for the interest and benefit’ of people and areas affected by mining. To ensure that people are appropriately served, DMFs are required to function in an inclusive and participatory manner. With mandatory contribution from mining companies, currently there is more than Rs 27,000 crores in DMFs across all mining districts.
The scope of this fund is huge to address some of the key issues ailing mining-affected people, such as livelihood and income security, clean drinking water supply, nutrition status, healthcare services, education, welfare of women, aged and disabled, etc. Forest-dependent communities, whose livelihood has been affected by mining, constitute a key section of the beneficiaries, and DMF is required to serve them in the spirit of FRA.
In addition, the Panchayats (Extension to the Scheduled Areas) Act (PESA 1996), emphasises engagement of people for governing natural resources, and specifies the role of local level institutions, such as the Gram Sabhas, in such processes. Implementation of FRA and DMF is also tied to PESA, requiring engagement of Gram Sabhas.
Theory and practice
However, none of these regulations are being implemented in letter and spirit, undermining the promises of each, and their collective potential.
For instance, the poor recognition of CFR rights has been a major obstacle for meaningful engagement of communities in forest resource management and ensuring secure livelihoods for forest-dependent people.
While the potential CFR area is more than 34 million hectares, which covers nearly 45 per cent of India’s recorded forest area across 177,000 villages, till date, merely about 3 per cent of the potential area is managed under CFR.
At the same time, poor settlement of individual forest rights is making people encroachers on their own land and alienating communities. The Supreme Court order of February 2019, that sparked a huge row over eviction of forest dwellers, is the latest testament to this.
Similarly, DMF implementation has started showing problematic signs. DMF funds in many top mining districts (such as in Jharkhand, Chhattisgarh, Odisha and Madhya Pradesh), are being used through top-down and heavy-handed decision-making, sidelining mining-affected people and their most pressing needs.
For instance, while most mining areas reel under poverty and livelihood insecurity, there is barely any investment to address this. Equally poor are investments on nutrition and health care, which are critical for having a healthy population and optimising on the country’s demographic dividend.
Finally, in nearly 23 years, there has been no serious effort to strengthen the local level institutions and engage them meaningfully in resource governance as PESA envisages. In fact, only five out of the 10 states that have notified Fifth Scheduled Areas have developed PESA Rules. None of the states with significant forest and mineral resources, such as Jharkhand, Odisha, Chhattisgarh and Madhya Pradesh, have PESA Rules. This has undermined the scope of implementation of this important law.
What should be the agenda?
The agenda for the new Government is therefore clear. With over 1.3 billion people, looming questions of livelihood security, and finite natural resources, India must strengthen the mechanisms of natural resource management that is people-centric and sustainable. This is also essential to ensure social and economic stability. The following must be ensured:
The FRA must be implemented effectively through proper recognition and settlement of all rights that have been vested to the communities. This is also important for the very survival of forest ecosystems. The settlement of CFR rights must be taken up as priority, as this is key to ensure meaningful engagement of communities in forest management (including habitat restoration) and also to secure their livelihoods.
The new National Forest Policy must also be framed appropriately to ensure this. The draft policy that is under consideration of the government, undermines the scope of people-centric management of forest resources, reasserting a top-down control through forest departments. This should not happen. The policy must emphasise on the role of people to grow, manage, protect and use forests sustainably. The forest departments should play the role of facilitators in community-managed forests.
DMF must be implemented through inclusive governance. The Gram Sabhas of mining-affected areas must be made part of DMF decision-making, by ensuring their representation in DMF administration, their engagement in planning DMF fund use, and monitoring its effectiveness. This can only ensure that DMFs remain relevant to the people for whom it has been instituted.
The Government should consider convergence of CFR areas’ management with DMF implementation. DMF funds can be used in CFR areas (where titles have been received) to improve forest-based livelihood opportunities (such as through processing of forest products and improving storage, supporting forest enterprises, providing market linkages etc), and also enhance forest productivity through sustainable management practices.
Finally, the institutions of local governance must be strengthened. It must be ensured that the power given to Gram Sabhas under PESA is appropriately exercised and does not remain as cursory paperwork.
It is high time that states with notified Fifth Scheduled Areas, and rich in forest and mineral resources, develop their respective PESA Rules to streamline and strengthen the functioning of local institutions.
At the same time, funds should be earmarked to build capacity of Gram Sabhas as they have a crucial role in implementation of all laws pertaining to people-centric resource governance. This is also critical for effective implementation of FRA and DMF.
Srestha Banerjee is Programme Manager, Environmental Governance (Community support and mining program), Centre for Science and Environment, New Delhi
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