Hope & fear

Published : Feb 29, 2008 00:00 IST

The Forest Rights Act, notified in January, is sure to come across stiff challenges.

in New Delhi and Ranchi

ON January 8, a week after the Scheduled Tribes and Traditional Forest Dwellers (Recognition of Forest Rights) Act, 2006 the Forest Rights Act (FRA) in short was notified, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh wrote to all Chief Ministers seeking their cooperation and commitment to ensure its effective implementation.

In the letter, he qualified the Act as a piece of landmark legislation in independent India that seeks to provide rights over land in their occupation to forest-dwelling Scheduled Tribes and other traditional forest-dwellers who have been residing there for generations but whose rights could not be recorded.

He further pointed out that at the operational level the Act required State governments to constitute committees in order to process the claims of tribal and forest-dwelling communities as well as the cases that may arise out of them, leading to judicious distribution of land rights. The Prime Minister urged the State governments to ensure wide publicity to the provisions of the Act and set up, at the earliest, monitoring committees at the State and district levels as also committees at the lower levels so that the work could commence soon. He added that while implementing the FRA adequate protection should be ensured to critical wildlife habitats (CWHs), as provided for in Section 4 of the Act.

The Prime Ministers letter could superficially be perceived as a customary follow-up to a piece of landmark legislation; as an exhortation to Ministers to understand its significance and pursue it earnestly. However, given the way in which it came up through the political, administrative and legislative processes over the past three years such an analysis would be inadequate. This is especially so when the Prime Ministers letter referred to the concept of CWHs, which generated considerable controversy as a delaying tactic with respect to the implementation of the FRA.

The concept of ensuring the protection of CWHs had even been interpreted by a section of forest officials and conservationist fundamentalists as a carte blanche to evict summarily and unilaterally the tribal population from areas they deemed critical to the sustenance of any form of wildlife. In this context, the Prime Ministers letter, its tone and content, is perceived as symbolic of the very trajectory of the law.

A widely held apprehension among sections of forest rights activists is that the invocation of the CWH clause could well become an extension of the objections raised by various anti-FRA groups over the past two years, the period for which the Bill remained under consideration.

CWHs are supposed to be notified within existing national parks and wildlife sanctuaries for the purpose of keeping them inviolate. Once notified, these areas cannot be used for any other purpose. Such classification, feel many forest rights activists, can lead to new displacement of forest dwellers .

In a more immediate context, forest rights activists claim that the vested interests arraigned against the FRA have made frantic efforts to evict large sections of the tribal and forest-dwelling population from their habitats. According Priya and Shankar Gopalakrishnan of the Campaign for Survival and Dignity (CSD), a loose federation of forest rights groups across the country, these eviction attempts have been reported since September last year from a number of States, including Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan, Chhattisgarh, Orissa and Andhra Pradesh. Efforts in this direction have apparently intensified in many States close to the notification of the FRA, with Madhya Pradesh reporting one of the most brutal instances.

The opposition to the FRA advanced by conservationist fundamentalists, sections of the forest bureaucracy, and paper and pulp companies contained arguments that covered vast thematic areas. They ranged from suggestions that the enactment of the FRA would sound the death-knell for the tiger population in the country; that it would curtail drastically the supply of pulp for industry; and that the law would culminate in the irrational distribution of forest land to tribal families.

Several non-governmental organisations (NGOs) and lobbyists advanced these objections and it was no secret that many of them had the backing of some of the most influential political families in the country.

However, most of these objections were fought back through a collective campaign by forest rights activists and various political parties for nearly two years. It was this campaign that resulted in the formation of a Joint Parliamentary Committee (JPC), which in many ways cleared the way for the FRA.

The introduction to the final Act states that it is meant to undo historical injustices meted out to forest-dwelling populations in not recognising their rights to land and resources. It also asserts that the rights of these communities include responsibilities for the sustainable use of forests and conservation of biodiversity.

The FRA recognises the right to homestead, to cultivable and grazing land and to non-timber forest produce. It accepts that there are legitimate non-tribal forest-dwellers, and acknowledges the right to rehabilitation in case of past forcible displacement. It prescribes that all future notification of inviolate conservation zones and curtailment of rights in protected areas shall require peoples consent.

Significantly, the FRA points out that the rights of forest-dwellers include conservation of forests and biodiversity, and admits that peoples involvement will strengthen conservation efforts. Additionally, it prescribes that no diversion of forest land shall happen without the consent of the gram sabhas in any region.

The FRA also contains provisions that facilitate the treatment of forest land as a community forest resource and allow forest-dwellers to act decisively in conserving forest resources.

There are also clauses that militate against the genuine rights of large segments of forest-dwellers. One of them is the stipulation that only families that have been residing in forest areas for three generations (close to 75 years) shall qualify as other traditional forest dwellers and only those primarily residing in forest areas can claim rights under the Act.

In the background of all these factors, forest rights campaigners, including organisations such as the CSD and political leaders such as Brinda Karat, Polit Bureau member of the Communist Party of India (Marxist), had qualified the FRA as a significant step forward but one that fell short of advancing the cause of forest-dwellers comprehensively (see story on the legal dimensions of the law).

According to members of the CSD, such as the Jharkhand-based Jan Andolan activist George Monipally, forest rights campaigners have understood this context very well and are proceeding on the premise that they would have to take proactive steps to get the FRA implemented. Hence there are several areas that we need to address, starting from issues arising out of establishing genuine forest-dwellers as per the Act to specifying deadlines and evolving acceptable local parameters for the work of various committees and gram sabhas in recording and accepting claims, besides resolving disputes that may emanate from among the forest-dwelling communities themselves, said George.

Other issues identified by Priya and Shankar Gopalakrishnan included maintaining a constant vigil against the machinations of sections of the bureaucracy and the Forest Department, its cronies in the timber mafia, and large industrial and business groups involved in forest-based corporate ventures, including mining.

Thakur Prasad, social activist and researcher on tribal affairs and displacement, said the drive to acquire forcibly both fertile agricultural land and forest land for special economic zones (SEZs) for big private companies was an area of concern vis-a-vis the implementation of the FRA. According to him, granting of mining leases to private companies in forest areas have increased in recent months.

He is of the view that forest movements have to oppose proactively this agenda of selling peoples lives and resources to capital, especially because the FRA, conceptually, provides communities a political role in forest governance. Prasad said the FRA was an important weapon to challenge both the present forest authority and forces of capital, which had moved into forests in a big way.

Writing in the February 4 issue of Peoples Democracy, the CPI(M) weekly, Brinda Karat listed the steps that had to be taken immediately to advance the implementation of the FRA. They included the initiation of verification procedures without the submission of claims to the Forest Committee in appropriate forms, defining the boundaries of forest and revenue areas, and the enumeration of evidence for community forest rights. She suggested that these were important tasks that had to be addressed and facilitated by not only government officials but also social and political activists.

But, as advocates of forest rights are aware, these are not easy tasks. And the tasks of the advocates of the FRA are bound to get more complicated on account of the legal challenges that are coming their way. Already two Public Interest Litigation (PIL) petitions have been filed against the FRA in the Madras (Madurai Bench) and Andhra Pradesh High Courts.

The Madurai petition, filed by T.N.S. Murugadoss Theerthapathi, grandson of Diwan Bagadur Murugadoss Theerthapathi, a former zamindar of Singampatti in Tirunelveli district, argued that the FRA was repugnant to all other laws aimed at protecting forests and preserving wildlife and hence ultra vires the Constitution. A Division Bench adjourned the matter to the second week of February pending directions from the Central government.

The petition said the Act provided for vesting in an individual or family or community the rights of up to four hectares of land, conversion of forest villages into revenue villages, and diversion of forest land for civic requirements. Such provisions, it argued, would be against the national forest policy, which envisages at least one-third of the total land area under forest cover. The petition also questioned the power given to gram sabhas to distribute land and argued that this would lead to organised land grab by commercial interests.

Clearly, the problems associated with the FRA and its implementation are far from over. As Priya and Shankar Gopalakrishnan, say, only the spirit of the struggle of the past two years, which made the passage and notification of the FRA a reality, can help forest-dwellers and advocates of their rights tide over the troubles. They are aware that no government is going to hand over forest rights to people on a platter. And the activists are determined to push the institutions and themselves to the limit.

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