To protect traditional forest dwellers, the Forest Rights Act, 2006, needs to be enforced properly and not be used against them
Ever since its inception, conservationists, the forest department and the Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change (MoEF&CC) have opposed the Forest Rights Act, 2006 (FRA), for vesting forest land rights with communities. According to them, forests belong to the government and the communities living there are encroachers who must be evicted. “They believe forests should remain undisturbed by people so that wildlife and biodiversity remains protected. But the model seems highly impractical as the rights of people living on forest land and cultivating it for centuries remains unrecognised,” says N C Saxena, who chaired the National Committee on Forest Rights Act in 2010.
This is the reason the Ministry of Tribal Affairs (MoTA), and not MoEF&CC, was made the nodal ministry for FRA implementation, he says. The law does not vest any power in the forest department in the workings of the gram sabha, sub divisional level committee or the district level committee formed to implement FRA. MoTA is forced to delegate work to the forest department because the staff strength of the tribal department in villages or forests is poor.
Significantly several forest lands have been encroached by those who do not have bona fide dependence on forests. In Himachal Pradesh, for instance, government employees have encroached forest lands. During eviction drives, these encroachers go scot-free, while the forest dwellers get displaced, says Saxena.
It is not surprising then that within a year of FRA’s implementation, conservationists and retired forest department officials filed a number of petitions in many high courts against the law. These petitions were clubbed together and the Supreme Court started hearing them in 2015. The most significant petition of these was the writ petition filed by non-profit Wildlife First. It states that communities must be removed from forest land because they degrade forests and thus destroy wildlife habitat.
Government data, however, says exactly the opposite. The Forest Survey of India, a government body responsible for surveying and assessing forest resources of the country, is the most reliable source of information on the health of forests in the country. Its State of Forest Report 2017 report lays the blame of degraded forests on development activities such as mining, and not the communities, as espoused by Wildlife First.
Conservationists display tremendous concern for the 165,088 sq km of protected areas in the country that inhabit wildlife. This is 23 per cent of the total forest cover. The February 2019 parliamentary standing committee report on the status of forests shows that between 2013 and 2018, 3,015 sq km of forest land was diverted for mining and other development projects. While both protected areas and forest areas can be diverted for mining, thereby leading to forest degradation, the communities which depend on forests for survival are more likely to ensure that the forests remains intact. Data with MoTA reveals that 54,591 sq km has been given under FRA and there is little evidence of damage of forests by communities.
On February 28, the apex court closed the lid on the Pandora’s Box it had opened in its February 13 order. The uproar it created pushed the Union government to approach the court with a review petition. MoTA has, in fact, asked states to carry out an accurate assessment and send data on the final rejections by the district level committees. It also told states to formulate a time-bound action plan to take up suo motto review of all the rejection cases involving claims of individual rights. Cases rejected on wrongful grounds by SDLC and DLC must be excluded from the rejection list, the ministry has said.
Under FRA, it is the State’s duty to educate people and generate awareness. In many places, forest dwelling communities have not been given Schedule Tribe certificates which makes it difficult for them to get their rights under FRA. This needs to be looked into. The capacity of MoTA and the state’s tribal departments need to be improved. Unlike forest and revenue departments, no tribal department official associated with the implementation of FRA is present at the village level.
Here, the department’s teachers in villages could be roped in, says Balwant Rangdale, an activist working with the Baiga tribals in Madhya Pradesh.
The fate of India’s forest dwellers, which often gets lost in debates, now lies in the hands of MoTA and the implementation of an Act that promises to undo the historical injustice meted out to more than 300 million disadvantaged people.
(With inputs from Gajanan Khergamker in Gujarat)
(This story was first published in the March 16-31, 2019 issue of Down To Earth)
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