Context: The tribal delegates of some States in India have condemned State governments and Central Government over the failure to implement the Forest Rights Act, 2006.
What is the Forest Rights Act (FRA), 2006?
- History: In the colonial era, the British diverted abundant forest wealth of the nation to meet their economic needs. The settlement of rights was provided under the Indian Forest Act, 1927, but these were hardly followed.
- As a result, tribal and forest-dwelling communities, who had been living within the forests in harmony, continued to live inside the forests in tenurial insecurity, a situation which continued even after independence as they were marginalised.
- The forest-dwelling communities finally found recognition in the National Forest Policy, 1988 which called for the need to associate tribal people in the protection, regeneration and development of forests.
- The Scheduled Tribes and Other Traditional Forest Dwellers (Recognition of Forest Rights) Act, 2006, was enacted to protect the marginalised socio-economic class of citizens and balance the right to environment with their right to life and livelihood.
- Individual Rights: The Act encompasses Rights of Self-cultivation and Habitation which are usually regarded as Individual rights.
- Community Rights: It also recognizes Community Rights as Grazing, Fishing and access to Water bodies in forests, Habitat Rights for Particularly Vulnerable Tribal Groups (PVTGs), community right to intellectual property and traditional knowledge, recognition of traditional customary rights.
- It also provides rights to allocation of forest land for developmental purposes to fulfil basic infrastructural needs of the community.
- Protection from Eviction: In conjunction with the Right to Fair Compensation and Transparency in Land Acquisition, Rehabilitation and Settlement Act, 2013 FRA protects the tribal population from eviction without rehabilitation and settlement.
- Gram Sabha: The Act enjoins upon the Gram Sabha and rights holders the responsibility of conservation and protection of bio-diversity, wildlife, forests as well as stop any destructive practices affecting these resources or cultural and natural heritage of the tribals.
- The Gram Sabha is also a highly empowered body under the Act, enabling the tribal population to have a decisive say in the determination of local policies and schemes impacting them.
Significance of Forest Rights
- These Rights undo the historical injustice occurred to the forest dwelling communities.
- They ensure land tenure, livelihood and food security of the forest dwelling Scheduled Tribes and other traditional forest dwellers.
- They strengthen the conservation regime of the forests by including the responsibilities and authority on Forest Rights holders for sustainable use, conservation of biodiversity and maintenance of ecological balance.
- They expand the mandate of the Fifth and the Sixth Schedules of the Constitution that protect the claims of indigenous communities over tracts of land or forests they inhabit.
- Forest Rights have the potential to democratize forest governance by recognizing community forest resource rights.
FRA in Conflict with Other Laws
- Forest Conservation Rules 2022: The Forest Conservation Rules implement the Forest Conservation Act (FCA), 1980 and prescribe the procedure to be followed for forest land to be diverted for non-forestry uses such as mining.
- The new rules make a provision for private parties to cultivate plantations and sell them as land to companies who need to meet compensatory forestation targets.
- The new 2022 rules do not mention about what happens to tribals and forest-dwelling communities whose land would be hived off for developmental work.
- According to National Commission for Scheduled Tribes, the new rules infringe on the rights of STs and other traditional forest dwellers by violating the FRA.
- Indian Forest Act & Wildlife Protection Act: Indian Forest Act 1927 regulates the movement of forest produce, and duty leviable forest produce. The Wild Life (Protection) Act 1972 provides a legal framework for the protection of various species of wild animals and plants.
- These laws ensure that the illegal use of forest resources can be deterred by the forest department but some of these prohibited activities are now guaranteed as rights under the FRA.
- Consequently, forest rights ranging from the right to harvest non-timber forest produce to grazing can continue to be criminalised by the forest department under the Indian Forest Act and the Wildlife Protection Act.
- An important aspect of forest offence cases is the discretionary power of the forest department which includes the right to arrest without a warrant and seize property including cattle.
- This discretionary power remains unchecked and has resulted in the violation of rights to due process and human rights of forest dwelling communities.
- Forest Conservation (Amendment) Bill, 2023: The Bill seeks to redefine “forests” for opening up forest tracts for infrastructure and development work that may cause lasting damage to the environment.
- Also, there is absence of any perspective on how existing proprietary, customary, and livelihood use rights will be dealt in the case of fresh forest land diversions.
Major Bottlenecks in Implementation of FRA
- Lack of Political Will: There is no political will to implement this act as assertion of power of forest dwelling communities is in direct conflict with the agenda of ease of doing business.
- Systemic Issues: There is lack of coordination between the tribal, revenue and forest department on implementation of the Act.
- Institutional Roadblock: Rough maps of community and individual claims are prepared by Gram Sabha which at times often lack technical knowhow and suffers from educational incapacity.
- Complexity of Land Settlement: Given the complexity of land and forest settlement in India and the poor quality of land records and maps available, generating an estimate of how much land could come under CFRR and where is not an easy task.
- Lack of Clarity: Non-implementation of the Act is also due to a lack of clarity about where and how much forest land might be eligible for Community Forest Resource Rights (CFRR) claims.
- Consequently, there is no “target” that state governments must reach and against which their performance can be measured in terms of recognising CFRR.
- Denial of Claims: Media reports on villages getting CFR titles are rare, most of them are about rights denied, claims kept pending or approved meagrely.
- Ministry of Tribal Affairs instructed the State Governments that in case of rejection, reasons have to be communicated and chances of appeal to be given to claimants, but it is hardly followed by them.
- Lacuna in Act: The FRA 2006 mentions giving the titles to the Scheduled Tribes and Other Traditional Forest Dwellers, but the Act is silent on eviction of individuals if the claims have been rejected. Consequently, food security becomes a big issue if the claimants are evicted from their ancestral land.
The FRA 2006 can be strengthened by:
- Recognizing the individual forest rights of all forest dwellers and the community forest rights of all villages in forest areas.
- Withdrawing or amending all recently passed environment and forest laws that violate forest rights.
- Direct action against forest officials who violate forest rights and/or decisions of gram sabhas under the Forest Rights Act.
- Ensure that any project using forest land is only approved after the consent of affected villages’ gram sabhas and made subject to their plans for managing the forests, as required by the law.