Insights into Editorial: The Forest Rights Act (FRA), its Dilution and Tribals
Ten years after the historic Forest Rights Act (FRA) was passed by the Indian lawmakers, only 3% of villages or communities could secure their rights over forest resources which include land and the produce from the forests and water, states the Citizens’ Report prepared by Community Forest Rights – Learning and Advocacy, a network of organisations working on securing rights for the forest dwellers in the country.
- The report reveals that some of the states with a significant percentage of forest-dwelling tribes and communities have performed poorly in implementing these rights.
Conception and passage of the Forest Rights Act was the result of the decades of struggles and sacrifices of millions of tribals across India, of their organisations, of numerous activists and intellectuals working on tribal issues, and because of the commitment and efforts of the Left parties.
About Forest Rights Act (FRA):
The act was passed in December 2006. It deals with the rights of forest-dwelling communities over land and other resources. The Act grants legal recognition to the rights of traditional forest dwelling communities, partially correcting the injustice caused by the forest laws.
Rights under the Act:
Title rights – Ownership to land that is being farmed by tribals or forest dwellers subject to a maximum of 4 hectares; ownership is only for land that is actually being cultivated by the concerned family, meaning that no new lands are granted.
Use rights – to minor forest produce (also including ownership), to grazing areas, to pastoralist routes, etc.
Relief and development rights – to rehabilitation in case of illegal eviction or forced displacement; and to basic amenities, subject to restrictions for forest protection.
Forest management rights – to protect forests and wildlife.
Eligibility to get rights under the Act is confined to those who “primarily reside in forests” and who depend on forests and forest land for a livelihood. Further, either the claimant must be a member of the Scheduled Tribes scheduled in that area or must have been residing in the forest for 75 years.
Process of recognition of rights:
- The Act provides that the gram sabha, or village assembly, will initially pass a resolution recommending whose rights to which resources should be recognised.
- This resolution is then screened and approved at the level of the sub-division (or taluka) and subsequently at the district level.
- The screening committees consist of three government officials (Forest, Revenue and Tribal Welfare departments) and three elected members of the local body at that level. These committees also hear appeals.
What are the main concerns now?
It is being alleged that some recent move by the centre have diluted the Act in several ways. These include:
- A series of legislation that undermine the rights and protections given to tribals in the FRA, including the condition of “free informed consent” from gram sabhas for any government plans to remove tribals from the forests and for the resettlement or rehabilitation package. The requirement of public hearings and gram sabha consent has also been done away with for mid-sized coal mines.
- The amendments to the Mines and Minerals (Development and Regulation) Act, the Compensatory Afforestation Fund Act and a host of amendments to the Rules to the FRA also undermine the FRA.
- The government has declared its commitment to ensuring “ease of business”, which translates into clearing all private sector-sponsored projects in tribal-inhabited forest areas.
- The National Board for Wildlife, with the Prime Minister as Chairperson, was reconstituted, slashing the number of independent experts from 15 members to three, packing it with subservient officials.
- Also, there is the deliberate freeze of the actual implementation of the FRA. Neither individual pattas nor pattas for community forest resources are being given.
Few government orders have also been introduced in some states to subvert the FRA:
- In Telangana, in total violation of the FRA, the government has illegalised traditional methods of forest land cultivation.
- The Jharkhand government has brought amendments to the Chotanagpur and also the Santhal Pargana Tenancy Acts which eliminate rights of gram sabhas and permit tribal land to be taken over by corporates, real estate players, private educational and medical institutions in the name of development, without tribal consent.
- In Maharashtra the government has issued a notification of “Village Rules” which gives all rights of forest management to government-promoted committees as opposed to the gram sabha. This is the law-based offensive.
What needs to be done now?
The government should recognise the role played in the FRA’s meagre implementation by the forest bureaucracy’s resistance as well as the acute lack of awareness of FRA’s community rights provisions in State administrations and forest communities. In almost all States, the Forest Department has either appropriated or been given effective control over the FRA’s rights recognition process.
- This has created a situation where the officials controlling the implementation of the law often have the strongest interest in its non-implementation, especially the community forest rights provisions, which dilute or challenge the powers of the forest department.
- The government should confront the forest bureaucracy and make it clear that any obstruction on their part is unacceptable. The little progress that has been made in implementation so far has been due to close coordination between tribal departments, district administrations and civil society.
- There is also a clear need to strengthen the nodal tribal departments, provide clear instructions to the State and district administrations, and encourage civil society actors. Without a strong political will, this historical transformation is unlikely to take place.
- Besides, any law by the government should be brought in only after wide discussions.
On the tenth anniversary of the historic passage of the FRA, tribal resistance is growing all over the country to defend their rights under FRA and other related issues. Given this, it is time the government reviewed the law and also looked at the objections raised when it was first tabled as a bill. In spite of its inadequacies, there can be little doubt that the Forest Rights Act (FRA) stands as a powerful instrument to protect the rights of tribal communities. It is a hindrance to corporate interests to their free loot and plunder of India’s mineral resources, its forests, its water.