Forest Rights Act (FRA) is a game changer but there's still a lot of ground to be coveredManu Moudgil
By just passing FRA, it does not change things on the ground — especially in face of opposition from authorities like the forest department which literally lords over the forest land.
Savara Sailaja’s family had been cultivating 10 acre of forest land in Sundarayagoda village of Srikakulam district, Andhra Pradesh for generations. After the declaration of this area as a reserved forest in 1985, the forest department did not allow them to enter the land, thereby forcing the family into abject poverty. Things changed with the passage of Forest Rights Act (FRA) 2006. Sailaja was awarded four acres of forest land in 2011 and now the family earns from horticulture activities and by collecting non-timber products.
Residents of Jenabil village which fell in Simlipal National Park of Odisha have been forced to move to the roadside. These communities belong to primitive and particularly vulnerable tribal groups who have been ensured their rights over their area of habitation under FRA. However, they have been denied community claims over forest land where they have lived for generations as the government has been trying to expand the boundaries of the national park.
These two examples show the diverse consequences of the implementation of Scheduled Tribes and Other Traditional Forest Dwellers, now recognised as the FRA, which proposes to do away with the historical injustices done to those living in and around forests. Be it a tribal sourcing out forest foods and cultivating the land or a non-tribal using the wood for building their own house, FRA gives power back to the people, not only for using the resources but also for their conservation and protection.
However, just passing a law does not change things on the ground especially in the face of opposition from authorities like the forest department which literally lords over the forest land. So, we have issues right from the formation of village-level forest rights committees to the rejection of valid proof, delay in granting community rights, approval of small percentage of claimed land, and exclusion of certain communities through selective reading of the provisions et al.
The Ministry of Tribal Affairs has been a beacon of hope as it picked up issues with local administrations, state governments and even with other central ministries to uphold the FRA. It also maintains a system of monthly reporting on the implementation of the Act, even though not all states tend to follow the protocol. It must also be noted that the numbers given in the status report don’t really depict the ground situation. So, here we try to combine data with opinions from the field.
Claims vs action
Under FRA, villagers are supposed to file claims through local forest rights committee which verifies and sends these over to the sub-division level committee (SDLC) which subsequently moves the claims to the district-level committee (DLC) for final clearance.
More than 39.59 lakh claims were submitted from all over India of which 17.13 lakh were rejected. Percentage of titles distributed over number of claims came to just 39 percent. Tripura and Kerala performed better than others but even these states had only 65 percent of titles distributed over number of claims. Chhattisgarh, which got the maximum claims, i.e. over 8 lakh, and has over 30 percent of its population as scheduled tribes, distributed only 41 percent of the titles.
Click on the state to get specific data
Uttarakhand, Bihar, Karnataka and Himachal fared poorly as the percentage of titles distributed among these states ranged from less than one percent to just over six percent.
Himachal started off late as it claimed that the forest rights of the villagers had already been settled during colonial rule and that no FRA compliance issue exists. This is why the Act was implemented only in scheduled areas of Kinnaur, Lahaul, Spiti, and Chamba. The state government got its act together only after the tribal affairs ministry wrote to the Chief Minister in 2013 saying that the implementation of FRA cannot be set aside due to settlements done in the past.
Sandeep Minhas of Himalaya Niti Abhiyan, which has been conducting training workshops on FRA both for villagers as well as the government officials, says there was a lack of interest from the state government initially. “Even the claims that have been filed only came from few areas where awareness was built and forest rights committees are strong. In many villages, the officials have done a formality of forming a committee either by picking up their favourites or by converting the committees under joint forest management into FRCs,” he adds.
Of the north-eastern states, only Tripura and Assam have been submitting the status reports as many of the other states excused themselves from implementation, claiming that the pre-existing rights regime is strong enough, and that the FRA is not applicable in their special situations. Some steps have been taken in Sikkim, Meghalaya and Mizoram, but these states are yet to submit the status of the Act’s implementation.
Wide gap between claims and awards
According to data, over 43 percent of claims have been rejected all over India and several are still pending before the authorities. In Gujarat, only 9.3 percent claims were approved in the first round. After protests by different groups, additional 19,000 claims were approved in the second round, bringing the total to 20 percent claims. "There has been no political will for the proper implementation of this Act at the highest level in the state government. As a result, the forest department has been given a de facto veto power in the claim approval process. The department considered only the documentary evidence of its records as acceptable evidence and ignored all other evidences that were submitted by the claimants. This was in direct violation of Rule 13 of the Forest Rights Rules," says Ambrish Mehta of Action Research in Community Health and Development (ARCH).
It was only after a Gujarat High Court order on a public interest litigation (PIL) that the state government decided to review all the rejections. "Around 30,000 additional claims have been approved after we filed the PIL. The progress in review of the pending claims is still very slow, which gives an indication that the state government is still not very keen on this," Mehta adds.
In total, titles pertaining to more than 57.16 lakh hectare of forest land were distributed in India. Madhya Pradesh topped the charts followed by Maharashtra and Odisha. Himachal Pradesh distributed only 0.35 acre under FRA. The states have not given a segregated data on how much land was claimed in the first place. So, it's not possible to draw a comparison between land claimed and awarded. There are scores of instances where very small percentage of the claim was allowed.
In Ranjra village of Dindon district in Madhya Pradesh, the land awarded to the community was the agricultural and residential, the titles for which had already been received by people under individual forest rights claims. “In Rajasthan, only one third or one fourth of the claimed land is given in most of the cases,” says Jagdish Purohit of the Society for Promotion of Wastelands Development.
Community access denied
Authorities found it easier to approve small individual claims than large community rights since the latter involve greater say over the natural resources and allow people to undertake collective conservation and protection measures which come in direct conflict with the plans of the forest department.
In Baiga Chak area of Madhya Pradesh, several gram sabhas passed resolutions against tree felling by the forest department to encourage regrowth that villagers say is more of a timber-extraction exercise. Under FRA, communities get the right to make their own micro-plans and take decisions regarding what to fell and what to preserve.
A report on community forest rights published by Kalpavriksh and Vasundhara cites example of Pondi village in Baiga Chak area where villagers confiscated the load of timber being cut by the forest department in December 2011. After negotiations, the forest department gave it in writing that it would stop all operations and not engage in any further felling without the permission of the gram sabha. "Such incidents have been reported from various states where villagers have asserted their rights and refused to accept the supremacy of the forest department," says social activist Madhu Sarin.
Since officials understand the negative impact of community rights on their authority, distribution of community titles over claims falls way short of individual titles. Only nine states have submitted segregated data related to title distribution and only Uttar Pradesh, Gujarat and Madhya Pradesh have done well on the community rights front.
"No claim related to community forest rights has been approved in our area yet because the officials know the value of granting such rights to people. But they don't understand that further delay may lead to encroachments on forest land," says Shailendra Tiwari of Seva Mandir, an organisation working on awareness and implementation of FRA in south Rajasthan.
A lot of rejections also have to do with the development projects coming up in particular areas. For instance, in Korba district of Chhattisgarh, not a single community right has been approved since memorandums of understanding have been signed between the government and the private companies to establish 39 power plants.
In Gujarat, one of the directions by the High Court while hearing PIL mentioned above was to expedite the process of community rights. "Even then the all-important right to protect, conserve, regenerate and manage forest for sustainable use is only being recognised in areas where gram sabhas are proactive or because of the intervention of civil society," says Ambrish Mehta.
How community rights can bring prosperity to the whole village instead to a select few, can be adjudged from experience of Mendha Lekha in Gadhchiroli district of Maharashtra. Well known for its declaration of self-rule, Mendha became the first village in the country to get community rights over 1809.61-hectare forests. This recognition helped in the harvesting of minor forest products including bamboo. Mendha also became the first village in the country to earn over Rs 1 crore through bamboo sale with a transparent tendering system.
The skewed process
Most of the claims under FRA have been reported from areas where civil society organisations are active and have helped people negotiate the legal and bureaucratic hurdles. At other places, even the formation of FRC has been difficult.
Kumir Mari village of North 24 Parganas district, West Bengal, is an old habitation, but over the years, it was converted into a national park and a protected area with authorities prohibiting villagers from collecting forest products. The Forest Rights Committee, which could have got them the traditional rights back, was formed by the forest department in connivance with local political parties and a few influential villagers. As a result, the locals cannot claim forest rights. In fact, the FRC members misguided villagers by claiming that no rights can be granted in a national park.
Such problems have been reported from all over the country. “Unsurveyed villages like those in remote areas of Chhindwara district in Madhya Pradesh are facing difficulties in being included in gram sabhas or in forming FRCs of their own. Even forest villages, which are specifically required to be converted as per the Act to revenue villages, have not been so converted in many areas of the state,” informs Deepak Acharya, who works with traditional medicine practitioners of Madhya Pradesh.
Soma Kishore, who has been engaged with grassroots movements, says it’s the interference of forest department officials which is a big impediment. “Forest department has no role in the process but it is constantly asked for advice since tribal affairs department is not trained to handle title distribution. In Rajasthan, forest department won’t let a claim pass unless the claimant has been listed as a violator in their records and given penalty. That’s the only way they can judge if the person has been living in the forest area for long,” she says.
Another major flaw is in the grievance redressal system. Even though there is a provision that anybody can appeal against the rejection of a claim, the rejections are often not communicated. "Sadly, positive results related to forest rights have been reported only from areas where civil society organisations are active. At other places, people are not even aware of such a law," says Sarin.
Unless immediate remedial measures are taken, instead of undoing the historical injustice to tribal and other traditional forest dwellers, the Act will have the opposite outcome — it will make them even more vulnerable to eviction and will lead to the denial of their customary access to forests. Also in some areas, this may lead to an increase in encroachments of forest land and the conflict between people and the government.
Some of the case studies were taken from:
Citizen's Report on CFR by Kalpvriksh and Vasundhara
Our Forest, Our Rights by ActionAid
Disclaimer: This article, authored by Manu Moudgil, was first published on India Water Portal.