Today's Editorial

Today's Editorial - 18 December 2023

An uphill struggle to grow the Forest Rights Act

Relevance: GS III (Environment)

  • Prelims: Forest Rights Act (2006)
  • Mains: Tribal Rights; Individual and Community Rights; 

Why in the News?

Rajya Sabha endorsed the Scheduled Tribes and Other Traditional Forest Dwellers (Recognition of Forest Rights) Act, enacted by the Lok Sabha.

Historic injustices:

  • Pre-colonialism:
    • During this period, local communities enjoyed customary rights over forests in their vicinity or even a large region. 
    • Even when kings or chieftains claimed (say) hunting rights in certain forests, local communities continued to enjoy all other forest benefits. 
  • Indian Forest Act of 1878:
    • Based on the false idea of ‘eminent domain’ (that the ruler always owns all property), the 1878 (colonial) Indian Forest Act was passed and the takeover of India’s forests began. 
    • The Imperial Forest Department was established to harvest and transform the forest to maximize timber and revenue and was also tasked with protecting ‘state’ property against local communities, now deemed trespassers.
    • The colonial takeover of India’s forests, however, resulted in a massive disruption of these traditions.
  • The injustices imposed took multiple forms as follows:
    • Forests were seen as primarily a timber resource, and shifting cultivation was banned. 
    • The so-called survey and settlement of agricultural lands were incomplete and biased in favor of the state. 
    • Simultaneously, to ensure labor for forestry operations, ‘forest villages’ were created, wherein forest land was leased for agriculture to households in return for compulsory (virtually bonded) labor. 
    • Since forests were now state property, all access to forest produce was limited, temporary, and chargeable, and always at the mercy of the forest bureaucracy that was armed with police powers. Legitimate residents and cultivators became ‘encroachers’ overnight.
    • The local community had no right to manage the forest, as the state logged valuable forests and made heavily used forests de facto open access. Communities displaced by dams were not given alternative lands and ended up ‘encroaching’ forest land elsewhere.
  • The Wildlife (Protection) Act 1972 and the Forest (Conservation) Act 1980 (FCA)
    • Lakhs of communities were forcibly resettled when creating sanctuaries and national parks. 
    • The views or consent of locals for ‘diverting’ forests for development projects was not taken into consideration from the local communities. 

Features of FRA:

  • Acknowledging Injustices: The FRA is remarkable because it first of all acknowledges these historical (colonial) injustices and their continuation post-independence. Redress then takes three broad forms. 
  • Recognizing Individual Rights: The issue of so-called ‘encroachments’ is addressed through recognizing Individual Forest Rights (IFRs) to continue habitation and cultivation or other activities that existed before December 2005. 
    • Forest villages are to be converted into revenue villages after full rights recognition. 
  • Recognizing community rights: The issue of access and control is addressed by recognizing the rights of village communities to access and use forests to own and sell minor forest produce, and, most importantly, to manage forests within their customary boundaries, including in sanctuaries and national parks. 
    • This is the most far-reaching provision in the FRA, as it ensures decentralized forest governance, linking management authority and responsibility to community rights.
  • Democratic procedure: The act lays down a democratic procedure for identifying whether and where wildlife conservation may require curtailing or extinguishing community rights. 
    • Having community rights over a forest translates ipso facto into the community having a say in, if not veto over, any diversion of that forest and a right to compensation if diverted. 
    • This right was reaffirmed by the Supreme Court in the Niyamgiri case, and although the Forest Conservation Rules 2022 and FCA Amendment 2023 seek to bypass this right, States can still put in place such consent mechanisms.

Distortions in implementation:

  • Diversion of Goal: The politicians in most States focused solely on individual rights and projected the Act as an ‘Encroachment Regularisation’ scheme. Some even encouraged illegal new cultivation in a few pockets. But even the recognition of IFRs was done rather shabbily, compromised by Forest Department resistance, other departments' apathy and ignorance, and technology misuse. 
    • Claimants were put through enormous hardship during claim filing, subjected to faulty and non-transparent rejections and (equally important) arbitrary partial recognition (thereby getting tagged as ‘approved’ claims). 
    • Imposing absurd digital processes in areas with poor connectivity and literacy, such as the VanMitra software in Madhya Pradesh, is just a continuation of injustice. 
    • Even the open-and-shut case of ‘forest villages’ has not been addressed in most states.
  • Extremely slow and incomplete recognition of community rights: The biggest lacuna in FRA implementation is the extremely slow and incomplete recognition of community rights to access and manage forests (loosely, community forest rights or CFRs). 
  • Colonial Legacy: The forest bureaucracy vehemently opposes community rights, as it stands to lose the Zamindari interests. The estimates show that 70%-90% of the forests in central India should be under CFRs. 
    • The other departments and political representatives can only visualize forest-dwellers as ‘labharthis’ (beneficiaries of state largesse), not as autonomous users and managers of their forests.
    • Maharashtra, Odisha, and, more recently, Chhattisgarh, are the only States to recognise CFRs substantially. However, only Maharashtra has enabled their activation by de-nationalising minor forest produce, at least in Scheduled Areas. 
  • Non-recognition of Community rights: The non-recognition of community rights is convenient to the hard-line conservationists and the development lobby alike: communities in Protected Areas are then precariously placed and easy targets for ‘voluntary rehabilitation’ and forests can be handed over for mining or dams without community consent.
    • Even here, illegal non-recognition of community rights in densely forested potential mining areas has led to protests and unrest.

Understanding the FRA’s intent:

  • As political regimes change and the memory of the struggle that led to the passage of this Act fades, calls for shutting down the FRA’s implementation have emerged. Simultaneously, some States have talked of ‘saturating’ rights recognition in mission mode. 
    • However, as examples from Chhattisgarh show, mission mode implementation invariably plays into the hands of the Forest Department, leading to distorted rights recognition and reinstatement of technocratic control. 

Conclusion: Unless political leaders, bureaucrats, and environmentalists all appreciate the spirit and the intent of the FRA, the historical injustices will remain unaddressed, forest governance will remain highly undemocratic, and the enormous potential for community-led forest conservation and sustainable livelihoods will remain unrealized.


Mains PYQs:

Q. Given the diversities among tribal communities in India, in which specific contexts should they be considered as a single category?

(UPSC 2022) 

Q. What are the consequences of Illegal mining? Discuss the Ministry of Environment and Forest’s concept of GO AND NO GO zones for the coal mining sector. (UPSC 2013)

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