Wildlife NGO group gets flak for seeking curbs on forest rights of indigenous people

Application moved in Supreme Court by three wildlife NGOs seeks to reverse rights granted under Forest Rights Act, allege tribal rights activists and NGOs

By Kumar Sambhav Shrivastava
Last Updated: Monday 17 August 2015

The Dongria Kondhs of Odisha, who have been protecting the forests of the region, won a major battle last year against multinational metals giant Vedanta that wanted to mine the hills for its bauxite reserves. One of the reasons for the union environment ministry rejecting the mining proposal in Niyamgiri was that it would violate the rights granted under Forest Rights Act (Photo: Sayantan Bera)

Several forest rights groups, conservation non-profits and ecologists have got together to condemn the move by a group of non-profits that has asked the Supreme Court to restrict implementation of the Forest Rights Act (FRA) of 2006.
According to a statement issued by the forest-rights group Campaign For Survival and Dignity (CSD), three wildlife non-profits— Bengaluru-based Wildlife First and Maharashtra-based Nature Conservation Society (NCS) and Tiger Research and Conservation Trust (TRACT)—have filed an application before the apex court in January, seeking re-examination of the rights granted to forest dwellers under the Act and curb their rights in national parks and wildlife sanctuaries. In an open letter (dated April 6) addressed to the three organisations, more than 30 non-profits and individuals working on tribal rights and conservation biology, have said that the move may “facilitate the accelerated loot of this country's natural resources”.

FRA was enacted by Parliament in 2006 to “undo a historic injustice” done to the forest dwellers by denying them rights to resources from forests which they had been protecting for generations. It recognises the rights of the forest dwellers over forestland and forest resources which they have traditionally been using as part of their culture and livelihood. However, implementation of the law in the past five years has been plagued with various problems with state governments rejecting majority of the claims or not recording the recognised rights in the land records.

Wildlife First, NCS and TRACT had filed a petition in the Supreme Court in 2008, through their representatives, Praveen Bhargav, Kishore Rithe and Harshwardhan Dhanwatey, respectively, questioning the constitutional validity of FRA. The case has been pending since then. The present application has been filed by these representatives in the same case. CSD has quoted the text of the application in its statement.

List of demands by wildlife NGOs

Verify claims: In the present application, says CSD, Wildlife First, NCS and TRACT have asked the court to direct the Central government to constitute a committee of independent experts or the Comptroller and Auditor General (CAG) of India to examine the procedure adopted for identifying genuine claims and grant of forest rights in Andhra Pradesh, Maharashtra and Madhya Pradesh so that forestland can be recovered from “ineligible claimants” and “encroachers”.

The application also says satellite imaging be made mandatory for verification of claims under FRA. 

Voluntary resettlement: The application also asks the court to direct the government to permit voluntary resettlement of people residing within national parks and sanctuaries without insisting on settling their rights under FRA.

Curb extraction of minor forest produce: It also asks the court to put a stay on the commercial extraction of minor forest produce from the national parks and sanctuaries. FRA mandates that no forest dweller can be resettled from the land under his/her occupation unless his/her rights under the law are settled. It also recognises the rights of the forest dwellers to manage own and sell minor forest produce.

Demands regressive, say critics 
CSD has criticised these prayers made in the application point by point.

Voluntary resettlement does not happen: CSD says that several independent committees have already examined the implementation of FRA and “contrary to the implied scaremongering in your petition, what has emerged is that millions of people are actually being deprived of their rights”. On the petitioners’ prayer that voluntary resettlement should be allowed without insisting on settlement of rights under FRA, CSD asked: “How can any decision be ‘voluntary’ when you want people to have only two options: face continued illegal harassment and repression, or accept whatever you are offered in the name of resettlement?” 

More powers to bureaucracy: On the use of satellite images for verification of claims, CSD says it would “empower the bureaucracy which has been responsible for massive destruction of forests and violation of forest dwellers' rights.”
Livelihoods at stake: On the petitioner’s demand for stay on extraction of MFP from national parks and sanctuaries, CSD says until FRA came into existence, forest officials did not permit forest dwellers to sell even the small quantities of produce they collected for their survival. “Now, when communities across the country are experimenting with collective, democratic management of non-timber forest produce (NTFP) for their livelihoods—at times with the support of conservationists—you want the court to reinstate a misguided, illegal and brutal ban which has no scientific basis?” the letter asks.

‘FRA a tool to check loot of resources’: “We are shocked that you could file a petition like this at a time when the Central government is seeking to accelerate clearances and industry is piling on pressure to make forest, biodiversity and resource destruction easier,” the letter further states. It says that across the country a significant force that has stopped this resource loot are local communities fighting to protect their natural resources and habitats, often by using FRA provisions. “Your petition seeks to gravely undermine one of their primary weapons,” says the letter.
The letter cites examples from places where FRA has been effectively used by local communities/gram sabhas to strengthen protection and management of forests, such as in Niyamgiri, Gadchiroli in Maharashtra, and protected areas such as the BRT Hills in Karnataka. The letter says the prospects for conservation under FRA need to be appreciated by conservation groups and organisations.

Appeal to withdraw petition:
The letter calls for withdrawal of the petition against the FRA and the present interim application filed by the three groups. The letter has been endorsed by the organisations such as CSD, Kalpavriksh, Vidharbha Nature Conservation Society, Vasundhara, All India Forum of Forest Movements, Mahan Sangharsh Samiti, Society for Promotion of Wasteland Development, scientists and ecologists from Nature Conservation Foundation and Ashoka Trust for Research in Ecology and Environment and several independent researchers.

When contacted, Praveen Bhargav refused to comment on the application and its content cited in the CSD statement, saying the matter was subjudice. But he later issues a written response on April 10 to the open letter, in which Bhargav says he wishes to counter some of the "ill-informed and malicious" statements made against the petitioners.

"The most serious accusation is that, through our Interlocutory Application in the Supreme Court in the matter of the Forests Rights Act, we are facilitating the loot of the country’s forest resources by the corrupt forest bureaucracy and corporates. The other serious accusation is that although we have chosen to contest the FRA, we have not opposed the illegal diversion of forest land for development projects," he says. He adds that Wildlife First had publicly opposed policies that unduly benefit corporate interests, through petitions to the Government, media articles and other interventions. Wildlife First has also fought tough battles against corrupt forest officials facilitating the loot of natural resources, and consequently was forced to face 14 criminal cases, all of which were quashed by the Karnataka High Court after a eight-year battle, with the Court making strong observations against the forest officer concerned.

Bhargav has, however, refrained from commenting on the wildlife NGOs' demands against FRA and the Forest-Rights group's criticism of those demands.

Act: The Scheduled Tribes and Other Traditional Forest Dwellers (Recognition of Forest Rights) Act, 2006

Letter: Don't facilitate corporate loot: Open letter to anti-FRA petitioners

Letter: Joint statement on Anti-FRA case in SC

Report: Community forest rights under Forest Rights Act: citizens' report 2013

Report: Our forest our rights: implementation status of Forest Rights Act – 2006

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  • Vanishing Yawal wildlife

    Vanishing Yawal wildlife Sanctuary The first victim of FRA
    The worst fears of environmentalists and conservationists about the gross misuse of the Scheduled Tribes and Other Traditional Forest Dwellers (Recognition of Forest Rights) Act, 2006 - also known as Forest Rights Act (FRA) - have come true. The Yawal Wildlife Sanctuary, Yawal Forest Division, Aner wildlife Sanctuary and entire Satpuda mountain ranges, which is an important habitat of the critically endangered Forest Owlet Heteroglaux blewitti in Jalgaon district of Maharashtra, has become the first victim of large-scale forest encroachment in the state. In another an unfortunate development that the tigers in this region now taken shelter in banana gardens surrounding the Satpuda forest in Jalgaon district and rich bio-diversity with thousand of hector land has been collapsed.
    The Forest Right Act was enacted through Ministry of Tribal Affairs to correct the ÔÇÿhistoricÔÇÖ injustice done to forest-dwelling communitiesÔÇÖ. These communities were cultivating forest land and using forest produce since ages but had no tenurial security. The objectives of this act are really great but situation in Satpuda has become worst due to the FRA. Massive encroachment & massive illegal claims are found in not only Jalgaon district but also in entire Satpuda. Unfortunately, this is happening very systematically, and in a well-organized way. Before submitting the claim encroachers are girdling (a method of killing alive tree to prove it dead) the standing trees, burning the stumps and extending their agricultural land. Entire Yawal & Aner wildlife Sanctuaries vanished now due Forest Right Act; situation in yawal wildlife sanctuary particularly in the comportment No.41,49,54,106,112,129,134,135,136,170 has became very critical adjusting Yawal forest division comportment No.n109,128,137,138,(Chopada) 14,18 (Raver),Adavad, Unapdev has already became victim of the encroachment of outsiders; thousand of hector land illegally occupied by encroachers. There are 3970 claims officially rejected by sub-divisional committee. It has proved that more than 15000 hector forest land officially- illegally occupied by encroachers, but encroachment is very huge on the ground.
    This worst situation in Satpuda has become the cause for the birth Satpuda Bachav Kriti Samiti (SBKS) and created significant impact on Save Satpuda Movement. All environmental organizations, activists, academiciansÔÇÖ birdwatchers are part of the Satpuda Bachav Kriti Samiti. Apart from the agitations SBKS conducts various awareness programmes and projects for creating awareness in Satpuda region. SBKS also organizes Conferences, Seminars, discussion sessions, Community dialogues, Dialogues & presentation sessions with Government authorities etc.

    Navad Patils in Satpuda:

    Navad land means the forest land prepared for the cultivation by new encroachers after the cut-off date (December, 13th, 2005) as per FRA. Navad PatilÔÇÖs means Land Mafias in Satpuda. These mafias created gangs of wood cutters in Madhy Pradesh (across the river Aner, which is the border are of Maharashtra & Madhya Pradesh states) for illicit logging in Maharashtra. After crossing the Aner River the huge gang of 200-300 people from MP comes to forests; cuts the trees overnight and prepare the land as per instructions of Navad Patil. After this overnight operation Navad Patil sells this forest land at a cost of Rs. 100,000/- to rs.200, 000 to local tribal for cultivation; once the tribal start cultivation nobody can revoke them from this particular land. The Forest Department can file only charge sheet against them. The encroachers are always willing to get charge sheeted; because this charge sheet will be most important evidence for them to submitting claims in future.
    The net-work of the Navad Patils is very strong in entire Satpuda. They are exploiting poor tribal; collecting money from them & also motivating them for cutting the forest. Forest department recently arrested Idya Pudya Barela (Navad patil) & Raju Bhika Tadvi in Vagzira forest compartment No.144. Two more persons Mr. Satish Bhavsar & Suresh Chaudhri were arrested by police in comportment No.79. They illegally measured land and collected money from the local tribal. These types of incidences are now common in Satpuda
    1. Massive attack on forest in Devziri, Vaghzira & Unapdev, Garbardi:
    Recently encroachers openly challenged the Administration & forest department and cut the huge patch of forest in front of officials of forest department in Devziri, Devgad, Devhari of Chopda taluka, they also threaten to burn the rest house of forest department; The situation was controlled after reaching of State Reserve Police Force. Dr. Sandeep Aher (Tehsildar) & Chandrajit Rajput, Deputy Tahsildar also reached the spot for inspection. A case was also filed in Chopda police station against this massive forest cutting in front of the forest officials. Another gang attack happened recently in Compartment no.147 of Yawal forest Adgao-Vagzira ; Attackers also had beaten Baba Mahahansji; who is an environmental activist and member of the Satpuda Bachao Kriti Samiti. Baba Mahahansji seriously was injured and hospitalized in Jalgaon Civil Hospital. Yawal Police arrested 14 people and filed cases as per Sections 307, 353, 143, 147, 323, 504, 506 and 427 of Indian Penal Code. In a recent incidence the forest in Compartment No.196 & 197 near Unapdev (Adavad) of Chopada taluka also totally destroyed by encroachers.
    Cultivation of Ganja: In the month of October-2012 in Chopda taluka of Jalgaon district, Karjana forest range and Ghoda Chapar beat (Compartment no 214) cultivation of GANJA found on claimed land under Forest Right Act. Jalgaon police arrested Mr. Jamsingh Balga Barela.
    Now the Ministers & politicians accepted the facts:
    This is happening continuously & now Forest Department has become a silent spectator of this huge destruction due to lack of staff and strong will power. Administration is also becoming helpless due to political pressures and pressures from so called NGOs & Voluntary organizations. Some recent incidences are: 1) Satyashodhak Gramin Kashtakari Sabha organized a 80 km march from Kondaibari to Dhule from February 9th to 12th. Thousands of people participated in ÔÇÿgheraoÔÇÖ to the Collectors office. After discussion with organizers of the gherao; The District Collector Mr. Gokul Mavare gave minutes of the discussion to the organizers; which resulted into a very negative impact among the tribal people. Immediately after this gherao; massive attack happened on forested areas in Dhule district like Henkadvadi, Tikhi, Narwhal, Borvihir, Tarvade, Nane, Sitane, Nandale. Why the district administration is doing this? Is this necessary to give minutes of the discussion to the agitators?
    2) Another MARCH from Jalgaon-Nandurabar to Mumbai organized by Lok Sangharsha Morcha called ULGULAN in first week of March-2011.Thousand of tribal people in Satpuda participated in the ULGULAN; After this ULGULAN massive jungle cutting are happening( Devziri, Vagzira, Unapdev already recorded by Forest Department & District Administration) in Satpuda. Now the tribal leader & Vice Chairman of the State Level Monitoring committee on FRA Mr. Manikrao Gavit accepted the in press conference organized on April-10 at Nandurbar that ULGULAN was unnecessary because process of the implementation of FRA starts from Gram Sabha and concludes at District Collectorate. But the participants miss-communicated by organizers & they also assured them that they will get land tital (7/12) in Mumbai; it was big harassment of poor tribal people pointed out by Mr. Manikrao Gavit. Another tribal leader Mr. Padmakar Valvi also the Minster & Palak Mantri (Parents Minister) of Nandurbar also accepted the fact in press conference that fresh forest cutting (after December-13,2005) happened in 5000 hector due to FRA in Nandurbar district.
    In another significant development Chief Secretary Mr. Ratnakar Gaikwad send official letter ( No. VHK-2011/PK 26/K14 dated February-9,2011) to the Director General of Police Mr. Shivananda regarding the issue. He clear cut mentioned that Massive forest cutting happening in forest by illegal claimant; need additional police force for preventing illegal encroachment; inform all DSPs to provide additional police force to protect the forest as well as prevention of encroachment.
    Guideline of Manikrao Gavit Committee: February-8, 2011 Meeting of the Sub-committee of State level Monitoring Committee (SLMC) held in Mantralaya, Mumbai under the chairmanship of Manikrao Gavit(MP).The committee discussed various issues regarding implementation FRA. The minutes of the meeting also published. The committee clear-cut pointed out that (point no.2). As per FRA do not accept new encroachment happened after December-13,2005.This new encroachment is very dangerous for tribal livelihood & culture; Therefore take very strict action against this new encroachment and also take the help from Police department & Revenue Department. (Point no.3).Some organizations are collecting money from poor tribal for submitting claims; they are also mobilizing that claims will sanction through their organizations only. SLMC only discussed these serious issues in the meeting; but why not declaring name of such organizations? Why not taking any action against these organizations?
    This is the worst scenario of the Yawal Wild life Sanctuary, Yawal Forest Division of Jalgaon district happened only because of gross misuse of Forest Right ActUnfortunately our forests are vanishing within the legal framework of FRA. How we will save our forest? We think that the Supreme Court is the only way for saving our forest.
    Sincerely Yours
    Rajendra Nannaware
    Convenor- Satpuda Bchav Kriti Samiti, Jalgaon
    Associated Organizations with Satpuda Bachav Kriti Samiti :
    1. School of Environment, Jalgaon
    2. Khandesh Nature Conservation Society, Jalgaon
    3. Vanyajiv Bahu-uddeshiy Sanstha, Jalgaon
    4. Jalshri, Jalgaon
    5. Green Earth, Bhusawal
    6. UPAJ (Urja, Paryavaran, Jal ),Bhusawal
    7. Udan Pakshi Mitra Sanstha,Amalner
    8. Garud- Zep Pakshi Mitra Sanstha,Amalner
    9. Agni-Pankha , Jalgaon
    10. Tapi Poorna Paryavaran Sanstha, Pachora
    11. Orchid Nature Foundation, Jalgaon
    12. Chatak Nature club, Varangaon.
    13. We Foundation, Jalgaon
    14. Yuva Foundation, Jalgaon
    15. Machan Foundation,Pune
    16. Bharari Foundation

    Posted by: Anonymous | 6 years ago | Reply
  • Sir/ Madam, This is response

    Sir/ Madam,

    This is response to the article "Wildlife NGO group gets flak for seeking curbs on forest rights of indigenous people". I am posting the response by Wildlife First to Open Letters to Wildlife First from Campaign for Dignity & Survival.

    Response to Open Letters to Wildlife First from Campaign for Survival and Dignity, Green Peace, Nature Conservation Foundation, ATREE, Kalpavriksh, Centre for Ecological Sciences and others

    We are responding to the two Open Letters cited above, which make several serious and unsubstantiated accusations against us. Since the matter is sub judice before the Supreme Court we cannot address all the points in the letters. However, we would like to counter some of the ill-informed and malicious statements made against us.
    The most serious accusation is that, through our Interlocutory Application in the Supreme Court in the matter of the Forests Rights Act, we are facilitating the loot of the countryÔÇÖs forest resources by the corrupt forest bureaucracy and corporates. The other serious accusation is that although we have chosen to contest the FRA, we have not opposed the illegal diversion of forest land for development projects.Through this communication, we would like to present a list of various interventions made by Wildlife First that will clearly show how wrong the above allegations are.
    Since 1995, Wildlife First has been strenuously fighting against commercial interests destroying wildlife habitats, and in some cases gravely affecting the interests and livelihoods of local communities as well. Such efforts have been taken up either exclusively by Wildlife First or in partnership with other NGO partners/conservationists or as a member of expert committees.
    Wildlife First has publicly opposed policy that unduly benefits corporate interests, through petitions to the Government, media articles and other interventions. Wildlife First has also fought tough battles against corrupt forest officials facilitating the loot of natural resources, and consequently forced to face 14 criminal cases, all of which were quashed by the High Court of Karnataka after a eight-year battle with the Court making strong observations against the concerned forest officer.
    Below is a partial list of interventions by Wildlife First, which speaks for itself:

    Legal interventions:

    1. An Interlocutory Application in the Supreme Court which led to the closure of iron ore mining inside the Kudremukh National Park by a large PSU (KIOCL). The stoppage not only ensured protection of the National Park but also saved the Bhadra River, on which tens of thousands of marginal farmers are dependent for their livelihood.

    2. A Writ Petition in the Karnataka High Court seeking stoppage of ferro manganese mining by private companies that were ripping apart forests in Dandeli Sanctuary.

    3. A Writ Petition in the Karnataka High Court seeking stoppage of mini-hydel projects promoted by several corporates, which were destroying the Western Ghats and affecting the water resources of local communities downstream.

    4. Legal support to local conservationists, which prevented a large corporate from installing wind turbines on the eco-sensitive Bababudangiri mountain ridge in the Western Ghats.

    5. Our complaint to the Karnataka Lokayukta, which led to an Order for initiating disciplinary action against an IFS officer for permitting large scale tree felling and for recovery of over 20 crores.

    6. Complaint to the Karnataka Lokayukta against another IFS officer for corruption, which is presently under enquiry.


    1. Extensive support to local communities opposing the disastrous Upper Bhadra Dam, which contributed to the stoppage of the project that would have otherwise submerged thousands of acres of productive agricultural lands and several villages.

    2. A major battle against the implementation of the World Bank Eco-development project in Nagarahole that exposed bureaucratic corruption, large scale timber smuggling and mortalities of 77 elephants during the project period through a major complaint to the Karnataka Lokayukta, through which more than 100 forest officials had to face disciplinary proceedings.

    3. Opposing the establishment of a luxury ÔÇ£eco-tourismÔÇØ resort in Kudremukh National Park.

    Support to other campaigns/Expert Committee
    1. Support to Green Peace (a signatory to the open letter) in its efforts to stop Coal mining in Central India, which was detrimental to forest conservation and seriously affected local communities.
    2. Support to Tamil Nadu Green Movement in its efforts to evict powerful people and large resorts in the Sigur Elephant Corridor in Tamil Nadu.
    5. Clear Recommendations to the NTCA in the Appraisal Report on action to be initiated against M/s Jaiprakash Industries for damage caused to the NSTR Tiger Reserve in Andhra Pradesh.

    Policy/Media interventions

    1. Article on the gross violation of rules /procedures of the National Board for Wildlife in favour of project proponents.
    2. Submissions to Government on key policy issues, including on tightening the Forest Clearance Process; Draft Policy on verification and monitoring; Tourism Policy etc.
    3. Several media articles highlighting faults in the wildlife clearance process, forest clearance process, EIA frauds, need for stoppage of mineral exports etc.

    We leave it to readers to judge the fairness or otherwise of the accusations hurled against us.
    Those interested to read more on our conservation interventions or any of the media articles referred to may please visit our website www.wildlifefirst.info


    Praveen Bhargav
    Wildlife First


    Posted by: Anonymous | 6 years ago | Reply