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Forest Rights Act

Published: 12th Aug, 2019

The Supreme Court is currently hearing several cases filed by various Environmental Organizations against the provisions of Forest Rights Act 2006

Issue

Context - The Supreme Court is currently hearing several cases filed by various Environmental Organizations against the provisions of Forest Rights Act 2006

 Background

  • In India, nearly 275 million poor people depend on Non-Timber Forest Products (NTFPs) for subsistence and livelihoods.
  • Unfortunately, Indian laws since colonial times have considered forest dwellers as “encroachers” and have criminalised their forest-related livelihood activities rather than recognizing their customary rights over their land.
  • It was the first time in 1990, that the Government of India recognized the symbiotic relationship between tribal people and forests in the National Forest Policy, 1988.
  • In order to implement the provisions of the policy, Ministry of Environment and Forest (MoEF) issued the required guidelines but it failed to implement them.
  • Then, in 2004, when mass protests were held by the tribal communities, MOEF issued supplementary guidelines to recognize the legal right of tribal communities to forest land and resources. However, the Supreme Court issued a stay order on the Guidelines.
  • Finally, in 2006, the Government enacted the Scheduled Tribes and Other Traditional Forest Dwellers (Recognition of Forest Rights) Act, 2006.

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

  • The Forest Rights Act (FRA) 2006 is a piece of social legislation which aims to address the historical injustice that our forest dwelling communities have had to face for nearly 150 years by providing them with security of tenure over land for cultivation and habitation through individual rights. Ministry of Tribal Affairs is primarily responsible for its implementation.
  • The FRA also empowers forest dwelling communities to protect, regenerate, conserve and manage any community forest resource which they have been traditionally protecting and conserving for sustainable use.
  • It has the provision for creating critical wildlife habitats within protected areas which currently is the strongest conservation provision among existing laws of the country.
  • It aims to positively impact the livelihood of the forest dependent tribals, but due to the lack of clear understanding and irregular implementation this goals was not fully achieved.
  • As a result, the very constitutionality of the FRA was challenged in the Supreme Court in 2008
  • Moreover, the Supreme Court in Feb 2019 had ordered the eviction of lakhs of forest dwellers whose claims have been rejected under the FRA. This was later stayed by the court.

Analysis

Issues related to the Forest Rights Act

A. Human Rights Vs Environmental Rights

The Act is highly criticised as land distribution legislation. But this criticism is not justified as:

  • It clearly states that forest dwellers who are either Scheduled Tribes or Other Traditional Forest Dwellers are only entitled to claim both individual and community forest rights (not land) through a clear process of submitting a claim. The rights granted to the forest dwellers does not mean that the forest is a pie to be divided and then they can do anything on the piece of land.
  • Moreover, the act does not sanction any fresh clearance of forest, as individual rights over land will only be granted if the forest dweller was in possession of that parcel of land on December 13, 2005.
  • It also places an upper limit of four hectares per claimant for individual rights.

B. Lack of Awareness

  • The government has made little effort to disseminate information about the application and approval process even though most beneficiaries are unaware of the full provisions of the Act, especially those pertaining to community rights.

C. Improper Execution

    • Ministry of Tribal Affairs has erected administrative barriers against implementation and set arbitrary deadlines for completing the process for recognizing these rights.
    • The law is yet to be implemented in 11 states
    • The MoEF continues to divert land without the approval of those affected and relocates people and communities.
    • Many state governments have admitted that almost no action has been taken pertaining to community rights.
    • The law requires coordination between tribal, forests, revenue and local self-government departments in the implementation of the Act. Each department interprets the law according to its own mandate and objectives and devises its own set of rules.
    • Rehabilitation and compensation was often reported to be not satisfactory.
    • The trade of Minor Forest Produce like tendu leaves, mahua and saal seeds is controlled by state governments. The monopoly curbs competition as well as restricts benefits to government officials only.

    D. Legal Challenge

      • The Act is criticized on the basis that the Centre has no power to frame a law on forest land, as land is a state subject.

      Recommendations

      • Awareness Campaigns - There are several examples where information provided to tribals and other forest dwellers have helped them in applying for community rights. Information dissemination campaigns should have several dimensions to reach out to the people. They should have a mass communication approach i.e. reaching out through radio, television and other media to ensure that people receive the basic messages
      • Capacity Building –Systematic efforts should be made to organise effective trainings to familiarise officials and others involved in implementing the Act with its provisions.
      • Improve implementation mechanism - There is significant improvement in filing and sanctioning of claims for user rights, particularly individual claims. Also, improved implementation ensures better distribution of FRA entitlements and more coherent convergence of development and poverty alleviation programmes at the local level to improve the quality of life of the poor.
      • Village Maps - Technology needs to be utilised to support implementation and make the process more efficient and effective. The ICT initiative of the Madhya Pradesh government - a web-based application has helped in speeding up the formation of committees at all levels across the state.
      • Collective Participation - Civil society groups should be involved at all levels of implementation. Tribal affairs ministry should clarify that the rights certificates issued should be recorded in settlement records and the land with individual rights be treated as private land. It must- clarify if it should be converted to revenue land

      Conclusion

      The FRA, by design, has tremendous potential to strengthen the conservation regime across India by recognising rights of forest dwellers over land and community forest resources, a key factor for conservation to succeed as shown both by research and practice in many countries. However, implementing the FRA in letter and spirit with empathy for forest dwellers should be the priority for the government to achieve conservation justice.

      Learning Aid

      Practice Question:

      illustrate the provisions of forest rights act 2005. Also, examine whether it has been successful in preserving tribal rights. Elucidate with examples.

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