Forest Rights Act (India)


Forest Rights Act (India)

The "Scheduled Tribes and Other Traditional Forest Dwellers (Recognition of Forest Rights) Act", 2006, is a key piece of forest legislation passed in India on December 18, 2006. It has also been called the "Forest Rights Act", the "Tribal Rights Act", the "Tribal Bill", and the "Tribal Land Act"." The law concerns the rights of forest dwelling communities to land and other resources, denied to them over decades as a result of the continuance of colonial forest laws in India.

Supporters of the Act claim that it will redress the "historical injustice" committed against forest dwellers, while including provisions for making conservation more effective and more transparent. The demand for the law has seen massive national demonstrations involving hundreds of thousands of people [ [http://forestrightsact.awardspace.com Press releases on the Forest Rights Act by the Campaign for Survival and Dignity] ] .

However, the law has also been the subject of considerable controversy in the English press in India. Opponents of the law claim it will lead to massive forest destruction and should be repealed (see below).

A little over one year after it was passed, the Act was notified into force on December 31, 2007. On January 1, 2008, this was followed by the notification of the [http://tribal.nic.in/Rules-TribalAct-English.pdf Rules] framed by the Ministry of Tribal Affairs to supplement the procedural aspects of the Act [ [http://tribal.nic.in/index1.htm Ministry of Tribal Affairs] ] .

Background

India's forests are home to millions of people, including many Scheduled Tribes, who live in or near the forest areas of the country. Forests provide sustenance in the form of minor forest produce, water, grazing grounds and habitat for shifting cultivation. Moreover, vast areas of land that may or may not be forests are classified as "forest" under India's forest laws, and those cultivating these lands are technically cultivating "forest land" [cite journal |last=Sarin |first=Madhu |date=May 5,2005 |title=Scheduled Tribes Bill: A Comment |journal=Economic and Political Weekly |volume=40 |issue=21 |url=http://www.epw.org.in/uploads/articles/637.pdf |accessdate= 2007-12-26|format=PDF] .

The reason for this latter phenomenon is India's forest laws. India's forests are governed by two main laws, the Indian Forest Act, 1927 and the Wild Life (Protection) Act, 1972. The former empowers the government to declare any area to be a reserved forest, protected forest or village forest. The latter allows any area to be constituted as a "protected area", namely a national park, wildlife sanctuary, tiger reserve or community conservation area. [ [http://envfor.nic.in/legis/legis.html Legislations on Environment, Forests and Wildlife, from Ministry of Environment and Forests] ]

Under these laws, the rights of people living in or depending on the area to be declared as a forest or protected area are to be "settled" by a "forest settlement officer." This basically requires that officer to enquire into the claims of people to land, minor forest produce, etc., and, in the case of claims found to be valid, to allow them to continue or to extinguish them by paying compensation.

Studies have shown that in many areas this process either did not take place at all or took place in a highly faulty manner. Thus 82.9% of the forest blocks in undivided Madhya Pradesh had not been settled as of December 2003 [cite journal |last=Prabhu |first=Pradip |month=August | year=2005 |title=The Right to Live With Dignity |journal=Seminar |issue=552 |url=http://www.india-seminar.com/2005/552/552%20pradip%20prabhu.htm] , while all the hilly tracts of Orissa were declared government forests without any survey [ [http://wbln0018.worldbank.org/ECA/ForestryAR/Doclib.nsf/1aa2fe4593e7920d852565a300685ee8/afaa4cc49f6d940a85256d6400467101/$FILE/Bad%20in%20Law-%20Down%20to%20Earth%20dtd%20July%2015,%202003%20article%20by%20Madhu%20Sarin.doc "Bad in Law", Madhu Sarin, World Bank website] ] . In Orissa, around 40% of the government forests are "deemed reserved forests" which have not been surveyed [ [http://www.vasundharaorissa.org/download22/Orissa%20mining%20and%20industrialisation%20note.pdf "Dispossessed and displaced: A brief paper on tribal issues in Orissa", Kundan Kumar, Vasundhara] ] .

Those whose rights are not recorded during the settlement process are susceptible to eviction at any time. This "legal twilight zone" leads to harassment, evictions, extortion of money and sexual molestation of forest dwellers by forest officials, who wield absolute authority over forest dwellers' livelihoods and daily lives [cite journal |last=Gopalakrishnan |first=Shankar |date=June-July,2005 |title=Missing the Woods for the Trees |journal=Combat Law |volume=4 |issue=4] .

The Statement of Objects and Reasons of the Forest Rights Act describes it as a law intended to correct the "historical injustice" done to forest dwellers by the failure to recognise their rights [ [http://tribal.nic.in/actTA06.pdf The Scheduled Tribes and Other Traditional Forest Dwellers Act, 2006] ] .

The Law

The Act as passed in 2006 has the following basic points.

Types of Rights

The Act grants four types of rights:

* "Title rights" - i.e. ownership - to land that is being farmed by tribals or forest dwellers as on December 13, 2005, subject to a maximum of 4 hectares; ownership is only for land that is actually being cultivated by the concerned family as on that date, meaning that no new lands are granted [ [http://tribal.nic.in/actTA06.pdf Section 3(1) of the Act] ] ;
* "Use rights" - to minor forest produce (also including ownership), to grazing areas, to pastoralist routes, etc. [ [http://tribal.nic.in/actTA06.pdf Section 3(1) of the Act] ] ;
* "Relief and development rights" - to rehabilitation in case of illegal eviction or forced displacement [ [http://tribal.nic.in/actTA06.pdf Section 3(1) of the Act] ] and to basic amenities, subject to restrictions for forest protection [ [http://tribal.nic.in/actA06.pdf Section 3(2) of the Act] ] ;
* "Forest management rights" - to protect forests and wildlife [ [http://tribal.nic.in/actTA06.pdf Sections 3(1) and 5 of the Act] ] .

Eligibility Criteria

Eligibility to get rights under the Act is confined to those who "primarily reside in forests" and who depend on forests and forest land for a livelihood [ [http://tribal.nic.in/actTA06.pdf Sections 2(c) and 2(o) of the Act] ] . Further, either the claimant must be a member of the Scheduled Tribes scheduled in that area [ [http://tribal.nic.in/actTA06.pdf Sections 2(c) and 4(1) of the Act] ] or must have been residing in the forest for 75 years [ [http://tribal.nic.in/actTA06.pdf Section 2(o) of the Act] ] .

Process of Recognition of Rights

Section 6(1) of the Act provides that the gram sabha, or village assembly, will initially pass a resolution recommending whose rights to which resources should be recognised (i.e. which lands belong to whom, how much land was under the cultivation of each person as on Dec 13, 2005, etc.). This resolution is then screened and approved at the level of the sub-division (or taluka) and subsequently at the district level. The screening committees consist of three government officials (Forest, Revenue and Tribal Welfare departments) and three elected members of the local body at that level. These committees also hear appeals [ [http://tribal.nic.in/actTA06.pdf Sections 6(2)-6(6) of the Act] ] .

Resettlement for Wildlife Conservation

Section 4(2) of the Act lays out a procedure by which people can be resettled from areas if it is found to be necessary for wildlife conservation. The first step is to show that relocation is scientifically necessary and no other alternative is available; this has to be done through a process of public consultation. The second step is that the local community must consent to the resettlement. Finally, the resettlement must provide not only compensation but a secure livelihood. [ [http://tribal.nic.in/actTA06.pdf Section 4(2) of the Act] ] .

Misunderstanding the Act as a Land Distribution Scheme

A great deal of the debate is fueled by misunderstandings of the purpose of the Act. The most common is that the purpose of the law is to distribute forest land to forest dwellers or tribals, often claimed to be at the rate of 4 hectares per family (see for instance [http://www.thehindubusinessline.com/2007/12/08/stories/2007120850010800.htm this article as an example] ) The Act is intended to recognise lands that are already under cultivation as on December 13, 2005, not to grant title to any new lands [ [http://www.boloji.com/opinion/0444.htm "Forest Rights: Why the New Law Needs to be Implemented", Shankar Gopalakrishnan, IANS] ] .

Opposition to the Act

The Act has been met with much concern and opposition from environmentalists and wildlife conservationists. Some of this opposition has been motivated by those who see the law as a land distribution scheme that will lead to the handing over of forests to tribals and forest dwellers (see [http://www.vanashakti.in Vanashakti] , a group opposed to the Act, as an example] ). But the strongest opposition to the Act has come from wildlife conservationists who fear that the law will make it impossible to create "inviolate spaces", or areas free of human presence, for the purposes of wildlife conservation [ [http://www.dnaindia.com/report.asp?newsid=1140969 Thapar, Valmik. "Conflict will go up by 10000 per cent", Daily News and Analysis, Dec 23, 2007] ] . Tiger conservation in particular has been an object of concern.

Supporters of the Act take the position that the Act is not a land distribution measure, and further that the Act is more transparent than existing law and so can help stop land grabbing [ [http://forestrightsact.awardspace.com "Understanding the Scheduled Tribes and Other Traditional Forest Dwellers (Recognition of Forest Rights) Act"] ] . Regarding wildlife conservation, they have argued that the Act actually provides a clear and explicit procedure for resettling people where necessary for wildlife protection, but also provides safeguards to prevent this being done arbitrarily [ [http://forestrightsact.awardspace.com/myths.htm#mozTocId696083 Truths and Falsehoods About the Forest Rights Act ] ] , [ [http://tribal.nic.in/actTA06.pdf Section 4(2) of the Act] ] .

Indeed, while concerned at some of the provisions, some environmentalists have also argued that "Conservationists who have stated that the Forest Bill will be the death-knell of India's forests are indulging in unsubstantiated exaggeration" [cite journal |last=Kothari |first=Ashish |date=December 30,2006 |title=For Lasting Rights |journal=Frontline |volume=23 |issue=26 |url=http://www.frontlineonnet.com/fl2326/stories/20070112003501400.htm] .

Supporters of the Act and others also argue that the provisions in the Act for community conservation will in fact strengthen forest protection in the country. This is said to be because it will provide a legal right for communities themselves to protect the forest, as thousands of villages are already doing in the face of official opposition [cite journal |last=Kothari |first=Ashish |date=December 30,2006 |title=For Lasting Rights |journal=Frontline |volume=23 |issue=26 |url=http://www.frontlineonnet.com/fl2326/stories/20070112003501400.htm] , [ [http://forestrightsact.awardspace.com/myths.htm#mozTocId600030 "Understanding the Scheduled Tribes and Other Traditional Forest Dwellers (Recognition of Forest Rights) Act"] ] .

TV Advertisements Against Act

In October 2003, [http://www.vanashakti.in Vanashakti] , a group based in Mumbai, ran TV advertisements against the Act. This is the first time any Indian legislation has been attacked through a TV campaign [ [http://timesofindia.indiatimes.com/India/Activists_come_out_with_ads_to_slam_forest_Act/articleshow/2481798.cms Sethi, Nitin. "Activists Come Out With Ads to Slam Forest Act", Times of India, October 23, 2007.] ] .

Six advertisements were run by the organisation across major Indian news and TV channels, ads which continue to be available on [http://www.vanashakti.in their website] . The group criticised the Forest Rights Act as having the potential to cause huge floods, droughts, and to increase global warming [ [http://www.vanashakti.in Vanashakti.com ] ] . They also decried it as an effort to keep "tribals in the forest" instead of assisting their "development."

In response to questions from a newspaper, Vanashakti claimed to have been formed over "a dinner table conversation" as a result of deep concern about the Forest Rights Act and the lack of media attention to it [ [http://timesofindia.indiatimes.com/India/Activists_come_out_with_ads_to_slam_forest_Act/articleshow/2481798.cms Sethi, Nitin. "Activists Come Out With Ads to Slam Forest Act", Times of India, October 23, 2007.] ] .

The TV ad campaign was met with angry responses from forest rights organisations. The Campaign for Survival and Dignity, a federation of tribal and forest dwellers' organisations from several States of India, wrote an [http://forestrightsact.awardspace.com/updates/open%20letter%20to%20vanashakti%20final.rtf open letter] to Vanashakti, criticising them for "attacking the Forest Rights Act through distortions and untruths that do nothing to reinforce forest protection, and a great deal to undermine it." The Campaign also put up a website entitled [http://forestrightsact.awardspace.com/vanashakti.htm "Vanashakti's Distortions and Untruths"] . An exchange of correspondence followed, which can be found both at the [http://www.vanashakti.in Vanashakti website] and at the website "Understanding the Scheduled Tribes and Other Traditional Forest Dwellers (Recognition of Forest Rights) Act" put up by the Campaign [http://forestrightsact.awardspace.com] .

Criticisms of the Act by Forest Rights Supporters

While supporting the principles of the law, forest rights supporters are not entirely satisfied with the law as finally passed. The recommendations of a Joint Parliamentary Committee on the law were partly rejected, and supporters of forest rights have claimed that some of the rejected clauses were important. In particular, the final form of the law is said to make it easier to exclude some categories of both tribal and non-tribal forest dwellers, to have undermined the democratic nature of the processes in the Act and to have placed additional hindrances and bureacratic restrictions on people's rights [cite journal |last=Prasad |first=Archana |date=December 30,2006 |title=Survival at Stake |journal=Frontline |volume=23 |issue=26 |url=http://www.frontlineonnet.com/fl2326/stories/20070112003600400.htm] . The Campaign for Survival and Dignity described the final form of the law as "both a victory and a betrayal" in their official statement on the occasion [ [http://www.minesandcommunities.org/Action/press1312.htm Campaign press release (see bottom of the linked page)] ] .

The Notification of the Act and the Rules

The one year delay in the notification of the Act and the Rules was the subject of considerable Parliamentary and political uproar in the winter session of the Indian Parliament in 2007 [ [http://www.hindu.com/2007/11/28/stories/2007112861931600.htm The Hindu, "Notify Rules of Forest Act, says Brinda Karat", November 28, 2007] ] . There was also mass protests across India demanding that the Act be notified in October 2007, and in November 2007 a week long sit down protest took place in Delhi with the same demand [ [http://forestrightsact.awardspace.com Press releases on the Forest Rights Act by the Campaign for Survival and Dignity] ] .

On December 31st, the Act was notified into force, and on January 1 the Rules for the Act - which provide the procedures for implementing its provisions - were also notified [ [http://timesofindia.indiatimes.com/India/Forest_Act_notified_tribals_unhappy/articleshow/2667409.cms Sethi, Nitin and Mukul, Askhaya. "Forest Act Notified, Tribals Unhappy." Times of India, January 2, 2008] ] . The Campaign for Survival and Dignity welcomed the notification but sharply criticised a number of provisions in the Rules, claiming that they undermined democracy and the spirit of the Act. For more information see the Campaign's press release [http://forestrightsact.awardspace.com/updates/update_01.01.08.htm here] .

References


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