Forest Rights Act is being diluted. What does that mean for millions depending on forests?
- The Forest Rights Act, 2006 protects millions of forest dwellers
- The law grants them right to look after forests and collect minor forest produce
More in the story
- What will a dilution of the Act mean to forest dwellers?
- What is the tribal affairs ministry up to?
The forests of the country are a disputed landmass. So much so that the environment ministry for the past two decades has been struggling to define what forests are.
To protect the rights of those whose livelihood depend on it, the Forest Rights Act was enacted in 2006.
But a national daily last week reported that the Union tribal affairs minis try has re-interpreted the Forests Rights Act that would pave the way for forest department of many states to gain substantial control over their forests in their states.
If the tribal affairs minister follows through with the decision to re-interpet the act, state forest departments would have authority over the gram sabhas who under the original FRA act had the authority to protect and manage forests.
The issue came up when in 2014, the Maharashtra government passed regulations to ensure its forest department retained control by passing some regulations overriding the Act, and get substantial control over the management of forests in the state.
The tribals affairs ministry called those regulations violative of the Forests Rights Act. It had earlier concluded that only tribals and other forest-dwellers had rights to manage forests.
Several communities in Maharashtra have claimed rights over community forests under the forests rights act. This includes forest produce like bamboo and tendu leaves which was previously controlled by the forest department.
The rules also state that the village forests will be governed by the state forest department where FRA is not applicable or where communities have not claimed rights over forests.
The law is in absolute contravention to what is laid down under the forests rights act. Under the FRA absolute authority is given to the Gram Sabha or village councils (village council) over forests.
According to FRA, forest rights are supposed to be recognized irrespective of whether they have been claimed by communities residing in them. in all the forests. Communities can voluntarily declare their forests as village forests.
The re-interpretation of the FRA act would basically allow the forest departments of states substantial control over forest reserves leaving communities that rely on it for their livelihood in the dark
With the ministry not budging on the matter, Union Transport Minister Nitin Gadkari and Environment Minister Prakash Javadekar, both senior BJP leaders, stepped in and wrote to the Tribal Affairs Minister Juel Oram against the directive issued to the state government.
While Javadekar's portfolio include forests, environment and climate change, Gadkari has nothing to do with forests or tribals.
The Forest Rights Act provides the following rights to forest-dwellers and communities whose dependence relies on forest produce:
- Anyone with a government lease whose land has been illegally taken by the forest department, or whose land is subject to dispute between the forest and revenue department, can claim those lands. The land cannot be transferred to anyone, except with inheritance.
- The law provides for rights to communities to collect minor forest produce like herbs and medicinal plants.
- Until 2006, before the Act was framed, the forest-dwellers department had the sole authority to protect the forests. But this Act gave communities residing in forests the right to protect and manage forests. They have the right to conserve community forest produce as well as wildlife.
This protects them from the forest mafia, industries and land grabbers.
What happens now
Activists termed the new developments and the ministry's move a setback for millions who reside in forests across the country.
"The Act played a crucial role in protecting the rights of forest-dwellers and those whose livelihood are dependent on it. Last month, we were assured by the ministry of Tribal Affairs that under no circumstances would the Act be dilutes. It is unfortunate that within a month they relented under pressure," said social activist, Medha Patkar.
Adivasis played a huge role in claiming rights over forests that invariably belonged to them, she said.
Shankar Gopalkrishnan, secretary, campaign for survival and dignity, a national platform for tribal and forest dwellers' organisations in 10 states, voiced similar concerns: "There have been continuous attempt to get around the Act in the past. And since the NDA came to power, there have been serious attempts to bypass the Act."
According to the Campaign for Survival and Dignity, before the enforcement of the Act, prevalent forests laws had led to the loss of more than 90% of India's grasslands to commercial plantations - sanctioned by the forest departments - as well as the destruction of 5 lakh hectare of forest for mines, dams and industrial projects in just five years.
"The Act grants various rights, some of it pertains to land and forest produce. The crucial aspect, however, is the right to for communities to manage and protect forests."
"Maharashtra had issued a new set of rules in March 2014. They knew they couldn't violate the FRA, so they tried to a new set of rules that would govern the forests of the state, which led to the subsequent intervention of the tribal affairs ministry."
Gopalkrishnan is worried that other states may follow suit, if the FRA is diluted in any way. Madhya Pradesh has already placed similar regulations as that of Maharashtra.
Isha Khandelwal of the Jagdalpur Legal Aid group, a non-profit that has been providing free legal aid to tribal communities in those Chhattisgarh's districts affected by Maoist violence also believes that recent developments is a major setback.
"I think states are still struggling with the implementation of the Act, and any dilution would be detrimental to the cause the Act was set up for in the first place," she said.
"The exploitation of communities residing in these forests have always been there, but the FRA at least served as a weapon for their rights. The purpose of the act was, as in the government's own words, 'to correct the historic injustice' meted out to adivasis and forest-dwellers."
Isha also pointed out how the rights became an important tool for many communities in Chattisgarh.
"Last month was the ninth anniversary of the act, and I hope it wasn't the final one," Patkar said.