Forest Rights Act: Looking beyond the statute


Divya Tulsyani

Student of B.A.LL.B. (Hons.) at School of Law, Bengaluru, Karnataka, India

Phone number: 9511581542

Email ID: divyatulsyani7@gmial.com


Millions live in and around the forest lands of India, but they do not have legal rights to their homes, property or livelihoods. Some representatives in government have all the authority over forest and forest dwellers. The outcome? Forests and individuals are both dying. This Act recognizes the rights of forest dwellers and makes conservation more accountable.

What is forest rights act (FRA)? And why is this law necessary?

The British transferred the nation’s abundant forest riches to satisfy their financial requirements in the colonial era. While laws such as the Indian Forest Act of 1927 provided for the settlement of rights, these were hardly implemented. Consequently, tribal and forest-dwelling groups, who lived in harmony with the environment and the forest ecosystem, a situation that continued even after independence, they live in tenural insecurity as they were marginalized.

The Scheduled Tribes and Other Traditional Forest Dwellers (Recognition of Forest Rights) Act, 2006, mainly focused on protecting the marginalized socio-economic class of people and balancing their right to life and livelihood with their right to the environment.

The Act essentially does two things:

  • Legally recognizes the rights of traditional forest dwelling groups, partly correcting the injustice created by forest laws.
  • Starts to give communities and the public a voice in the conservation of forests and wildlife.

Salient features of the Act:

  • The act recognizes and enshrines the rights and occupation of forest land in Forest Dwelling Scheduled Tribes (FDST) and Other Traditional Forest Dwellers (OTFD) who have resided for a long time in such forests.
  • The Act also sets out duties and power for sustainable use, biodiversity conservation and maintenance of FDST and OTFD ecological equilibrium.
  • It enhances the forest conservation system while maintaining the FDST and OTFD’s livelihood and food security.
  • It seeks to rectify the FDST and OTFD colonial injustice that are essential to the forest ecosystem’s very survival and sustainability.
  • The act identifies the following types of rights:
  • TITLE RIGHTS:  It provides FDST and OTFD the right to own tribal or forest residents farmed land subject to a maximum of 4 hectares. Ownership is only for land that the family in question is effectively cultivating and no fresh land will be given.
  • USE RIGHTS: The residents’ rights extend to Minor Forest Produce extraction, grazing regions, pastoralist paths, etc.
  • RELIEF AND DEVELOPMENT RIGHTS: Rehabilitation in the event of illegal displacement or compelled displacement and fundamental facilities subject to forest protection constraints
  • FOREST MANAGEMENT RIGHTS: It involves the right to safeguard, regenerate or preserve or handle any resource of community forest that has traditionally been protected and preserved for sustainable use.

These rights can be exercised by the Members or Scheduled Tribes community, predominantly resident in and dependent on forests or forest lands for the needs of bona fide living.

Supreme court order:

On 13 February,2019 the Supreme Court ordered that lakhs belonging to the Scheduled Tribes (STs) and Other Traditional Forest Dwellers (OTFDs) groups be expelled from 16 States whose claim as forest residents was rejected under the Forest Rights Act. A Bench of Justices Arun Mishra, Navin Sinha, and Indira Banerjee ordered many of these states ‘ chief secretaries to expel those whose claims were ultimately rejected.

The tribunal ordered the expulsion to take place by July 24, 2019.In a 19-page order, the Bench warned the States that if the expulsions were not carried out within the prescribed time limit, the matter would be considered seriously.’ By 12 July, the Chief Secretaries of the States had been told to lodge affidavits explaining why the rejected claimants had not been expelled. It instructed India’s Forest Survey (FSI) to conduct a satellite survey and record the “encroachment positions.”

The petitioners are Wildlife First, Nature Conservation Society, and Tiger Research and Conservation Trust. They argued that forest protection has been significantly impacted by the FRA’s bogus allegations, and that the bogus claimants continue to occupy big regions of forest land, including within national parks and sanctuaries, despite their claims being rejected under the FRA’s appeal system.

The proposed amendments of the IFA  are : The FRA, enacted in 2006, envisages a village’s forest rights committee as the central unit for forest resource management. The suggested amendments to the IFA will return to providing representatives of the Forest Department overriding powers.

The Forest Department’s higher policing powers include the use of firearms and veto power to override the FRA. Furthermore, if FRA rights are seen as hampering attempts to conserve forests, the state may commute those rights to tribals through compensation. The amendments also propose that forest land should be opened expressly to commercial timber and non-timber forest products.

Criticism:

One major objection is that the amendment overrides the 2006 Forest Rights Act (FRA), which had given legal recognition to traditional forest-dwelling communities ‘ rights to land and other resources denied to them over decades. The draft bill proposes allowing the government to open any patch of forest that it considers fit for commercial plantations and allowing it to assign forests to non-state entities, but not on lease. There are concerns, however, that this could lead to non-forest use and commercial exploitation diversion.

On the other side, policy makers say some external regulation is required, especially in view of concerns related to climate change and international commitments to increase forest cover. Another important provision is the creation of national and state forest funds supported by private companies and the promotion of forest production through the active involvement of private companies.

Current scenario:

On Thursday, 13th September, the Supreme Court has continued its stay to evict lakhs of Scheduled Tribes and other traditional forest residents whose claims have been dismissed under the 2006 Forest Rights Act (FRA). A Bench led by Justice Arun Mishra posted the case hearing on November 26 and said it would continue with the first stay order issued on February 28.

The Bench referred to how resorts and unauthorized structures have penetrated forest land and resulted in the green cover being reduced. The court said it would show no mercy to “the mighty and the undeserving” who had invaded the forest lands.

Conclusion: A way forward

Taking into account the huge financial, social and ecological advantages of managing individual and community forests, the Center should enforce the Forest Rights Act, 2006 in its correct spirit in collaboration with state governments.

The way forward would be: Reviewing promptly all rejected and pending IFR and CFR claims; ensuring the timely review and acceptance of IFR and CFR claims by routine district and subdivision committee meetings; and building gram sabhas capacity to manage and manage community forest resources. In addition to leveraging contemporary technology to map and monitor FRA execution, it’s also important to reform the forest bureaucracy to serve as gram sabhas service providers.

Non-timber forest products need to be supported by advertising and MSP, and institutional mechanisms need to be created to promote value-added community forest enterprises. It is also essential to strengthen the Central and State Ministry of Tribal Affairs with human and economic resources to assist enforce FRA on a mission mode.

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