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Mainstream, VOL LI, No 50, November 30, 2013

Right to Forest Land: Who Benefits?

Sunday 1 December 2013

by Rachna Kumari Prasad

The right to forest land is not only a right to livelihood for the Adivasis but also an issue of identity, dignity and culture. Depriving them of their rights has reduced them into India’s poorest, marginalised communities, vulnerable to hunger, malnutrition, starvation and distress. The Scheduled Tribes and Other Traditional Forest Dwellers (Recognition of Forest Rights) Act (FRA) 2006 aimed to compensate the historic injustice meted out to the forest dwellers, Scheduled Tribes and other traditional forest dependent communities whose rights on ancestral forest land and their habitat were not adequately recognised in the colonial as well as independent India. The phrase “historic injustice†was the highlight of the FRA Act. However, after four years of its implementation, the Adivasis have not benefited from the Act. Instead it has been successful in empowering the forest officials and Forest Department. Nonetheless, there was a new beginning when the Ministry of Tribal Affairs (MOTA) got the Act enacted. The Act holds promise of realising the claims of tribals and other forest dwellers. They are also to benefit from complete owner-ship rights on non-timber forest produce (NTFP), minor forest produce (MFP), and management and conservation rights over forest resources including community rights.

Now the question is: would the recent Land Acquisition, Rehabilitation and Resettlement (LARR) Bill 2013 reduce the problem of land acquisition and help the tribals in Jharkhand to ensure their right to forest land?

Jharkhand is an important State for implementation of the FRA, as it has a large forest area and a large tribal and non-tribal forest dependant population. Based on a study conducted in 2010 in a few villages in Jharkhand and review of literature on the FRA, this paper tries to address some of the major concerns in the implementation of the Act against the backdrop of the ‘historic injustice’ done to the Adivasis. The debate amongst activists and scholars raise some of the ambiguities in the Act alongside its faulty implementation. From the people’s rights perspective some of the significant issues which need to be further examined in the context of the implementation of the Act are outlined here.

Implementation Procedure: Role of Gram Sabhas

While the provision is to call gram sabhas at three levels: (i) actual settlements-hamlets, (ii) revenue villages, and (iii) panchayats, in a majority of the States, such as Orissa, West Bengal, Chhattisgarh, Maharashtra and Jharkhand, it is only at the third level that this is done. This prevents the Adivasis from participating and the real situation is never analysed. The radical Panchayat Extension to Scheduled Areas (PESA) Act 1996, which gives the gram sabha the authority to use the natural resources, is still not implemented. (Sharma, 2010: 9)1 The issues of ownership of non-timber forest produce (NTFP) have been resolved by the PESA Act, under which in the Scheduled Areas the ownership of NTFP is vested in the gram sabha. While this provision in the Act is to empower the local people in having a voice in the decisions regarding use and control of natural resources such as forests, it has come to empower the Forest Department officials who ignore the gram sabha if any. Giving the forest produce on lease without permission of the gram sabha violates PESA and strengthens the nexus between the corrupt officials, the middlemen/contractors and traders, who benefit in terms of huge monetary gains. The Adivasis continue to remain deprived of their right to resources despite the FRA.

 The Forest Departments

The Forest Department, as an important agency in implementing the FRA, empowers the forest officials to harass, humiliate and exploit the tribals. Meena Menon argues that in Maharashtra, harassment of forest officials has increased in recent times. The provisions in the Act are not acknowledged by the officials. (Menon, 2009: 9) Radha Krishna Munda of the Jharkhand Jungle Bachao Andolan states that the harassment of Adivasis by the forest officials creates an “atmosphere of suspicion and intimidation†. Instead of implementing the beneficial provisions of the FRA, the police, civil administration and forest bureaucracy collude with corporations to appropriate the Adivasi land. (Dungdung, 2010: 3) Pradip Prabhu of the Campaign for Survival and Dignity points out that the Forest Departments in many States harass the tribals by rejecting the claims of the Forest Rights Committee (FRC) by absenting from verification. (Prabhu, 2004) The Joint Forest Management Committees (JFMCs) are dominated by local vested interests and allies of the Forest Departments. In Chhattisgarh, Gujarat, Kerala and elsewhere, deliberate efforts to use the committees to sabotage recognition of the rights under the Act are a common feature. In some areas JFMCs have been imposed on the FRC; this is patently illegal and violates the Act.

Community Rights

The community rights and conservation provisions are treated as low priority in a majority of States. The power of the communities to protect and manage their forests and prevent land mafias and corrupt officials from damaging the forest is not recognised. The forest bureau-cracy, along with the district administration, is often responsible for creating hurdles in the filing of community claims. Dayamani Barla of the Adivasi Moolvaasi Aasthitva Raksha Manch (AMARM) argues that the community rights claim is not recognised in Jharkhand and this violates the Act. Most villagers in Jharkhand are unaware of the community forest rights (CFR) provisions of the FRA. The villagers are not provided with the necessary support for filing the CFR claims. Most worrying are the consistent reports of massive corruption in the process at the lowest levels operating in two ways: through the sale of claim forms and later through the collection of “approval fee†during the measurement of land and other processes. (Singh, 2010: 7)

Illegal Evictions and Protests

State governments continue to threaten people with illegal eviction due to big development projects. The Comptroller and Auditor General reported violation of the Act in Madhya Pradesh as “over 1515 hectare forest land was illegally diverted without permission of the Government of India†. (The Hindu, 2008: 6). The study of the Baiga tribals’ protest movement against the Forest Department by Mahim Pratap Singh illustrates the demand for community forest conservation. (Singh, 2009: 1) Such protest movements can also be seen in Jharkhand, Orissa, Kerala, Maharashtra, Rajasthan and elsewhere. Despite people’s protests the ‘developmental state’ has ignored their concerns and undertaken projects at the cost of their rights. There is enough evidence that violations of people’s rights contribute to increasing opposition of the state policies by the Maoists/Naxals in the tribal areas.

Joint Forest Management

Based on the 1988 forest policy, JFM was initially welcomed as a progressive shift from centralised forest management to a collaborative approach making villagers partners in sustainable forest development. (Sarin, 2010: 113) The JFM programme to regenerate degraded forest land (Sundar, 2000: 249) is in practice not participatory but controlled by the Forest Department. Experiences at the ground level also revealed that JFM resulted in increasing the powers of the Forest Department and shrinking the powers of the local communites. During a visit to Jharkhand most villagers said that JFM is a way of maintaining control of the forest by the Forest Department. The National Forum of Forest People and Forest Workers opposed the Review Committee of the FRA by the Ministry of Forests and Environment as JFM was promoted as the future forest managing institution, which undermined the crucial role of the gram sabhas in forest governance. The renewal of JFM is seen as an effort to empower the forest officials in matters of governance. This is illustrated in the study of North Bengal.2

The National Forum of Forest People and Forest Workers opposed the recent Review Committee of the Forest Rights Act (FRA) under the Ministry of Environment and Forests (MoEF) as it promoted JFM as the future forest managing institution and undermined the crucial role of the gram sabha in forest governance. The JFMCs are dominated by local vested interest groups and the officials of the Forest Department and local communities are deprived of their rights to manage the forests. Therefore the recent direction by the Ministry of Forests and Environment to recognise the JFMCs as organisations of the gram sabha and act as its standing committees for issues related to minor forest produce, social forestry and farm forestry is a step forward to give the local communities a key role in managing forest resources. (The Hindu, 2010: 7)

Conclusion

The Jharkhand study reveals that there is a needfor raising awareness among the tribals regarding various provisions of the Act. It is important to make forest dwellers true partners in the development process. They should be enabled to exercise their right to manage forests sustainably. The development projects should take cognisance of their right to livelihood and policies and decisions should be based on a consensual dialogue. Therefore besides institutional and procedural democracy, substantial democracy calls for involving the tribals in implementation of the Forest Rights Act. The Forest Department should act as a facilitator rather than a regulator. The claim of community rights and conservation provisions should be given priority in a majority of the States. Development should have a humane approach. 

References

Dangdung, Gladson (2010), “Jharkhand Forum: The Adivasi Voice†, May 6.

Menon, Meena (2009), “Forest Rights and Implementation Issues†in The Hindu, August 5, p. 9.

Prabhu, Pradip (2004), “The Right to Live with Dignity†in Seminar, Vol 552.

Report of the Jan Sunwai (2003), “Endangered Symbiosis, Evictions and India’s Forest Communities†, Campaign for Survival and Dignity, July 19-20, New Delhi.

Sarin, Madhu (2010), ‘Democratising India’s Forests through Tenure and Governance Reforms’, Social Action, Vol. 60, pp. 104-120.

Sharma, B.D. (2010), “For Tribals, Development Means Exploitation†, in TheTimes of India, March 10.

Singh, Mahim Pratap (2009), “Baiga Tribals Show the Way in Forest Conservation†in TheHindu, December 26, p. 1.

Singh, Mahim Pratap (2010), “Claim Forms for Forest Rights ‘On Sale’†in The Hindu, January 11, p. 7.

Sundar, Nandini (2000), “Unpacking the Joint in Joint Forest Management†in Martin Doornbos and Ben White (ed.), Forests: Nature, People, Power, USA: Blackwell Publishers.

The Hindu, (2008), April 3, p. 6.

The Hindu, (2010), May 22, p. 13. 

The Hindu, (2010), Novenber 1, p. 7.

The Times of India, (2010) August 7, p. 5.

Endnotes

1. For details see the Panchayat Extension to Scheduled Areas Act 1996.

2. For details see report of the Review Committee meeting held on September 24, 2010.

Rachna Kumari Prasad presently teaches Political Science at Shyama Prasad Mukherjee College, Delhi University. She can be contacted at rachnakumariprasad@gmail.com

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