The Scheduled Tribes and Other Traditional Forest Dwellers (Recognition of Forest Rights) Act, 2006, commonly called the Forest Rights Act (FRA), addressed a long-pending need but also threw up hurdles for forest and wildlife conservation. The challenge before the Act was to balance the needs of Adivasis and forest dwellers with those of forests and wildlife.
The Scheduled Tribes and forest dwellers, who are among India’s most marginalised communities, number around 250 million and many of them continue to live in areas marked as forest or forest land. The main objective of the Act is to recognise the rights of the forest dwelling tribal communities and other traditional forest dwellers to forest resources for livelihood and habitation.
Also read: 2006: Rural job scheme MGNREGA introduced
Its priority is people but environmental conservation has been written into it to some extent. Opponents of the Act believe implementation of the Act will lead to the destruction of forests and wildlife. Part of this stems from the belief that the Act will lead to the carving up and distribution of forest land. Those in favour of the Act say that it provides a clear process for resettling people when this is required for wildlife protection.
Conservationists fear that inviolate spaces for already besieged wildlife will shrink further. Two clauses can cause indefinite delays to conservation efforts. One says that the entire community must agree to relocation, and the second says that there should be compensation and the surety of secure livelihood. The onus to ensure both is on conservationists.
There are also doubts about the argument that forest dwellers will protect wildlife and the forest. This was possibly true in another age when there was a symbiotic relationship between the two, but basic amenities such as roads, dispensaries, schools, and electricity and telecommunication infrastructure are now an integral part of forest dwellers’ lives.
Also read: India at 75: Epochal moments from the 2000s
At the core of the argument for the Act is that it rectifies the wrongs of the past. The reference is to the old Indian Forest Acts of 1865 and 1927, which promoted revenue from the forest and benefitted neither traditional forest dwellers nor wildlife. The same argument needs to be extended to the wrongs suffered by forests and wildlife not just in the past but in the present.
As it stands, neither side is completely happy with the Act, with some people calling it “both a victory and a betrayal”.