Today I write about something that is very close to my heart. I talk about rights, legally, a fundamental entitlement given to individuals to do or owe something generally by higher authorities.
Forest Rights Act 2006
In 2006, rights of tribals and other forest dwellers were recognized by the Government of India in the form of Forest Rights Act (FRA). It recognizes the rights of the traditional forest dwellers over forest and land resources. It was exalted for undoing the ‘historical injustice’ of adopting the colonial forest laws in our constitution without any modification. The purpose of Indian Forest Act 1927 by the British government was not conservation. The act made it easy for the British to exploit timber resources of our country by declaring forests as state property. Unfortunately, we attained democracy but were incarcerated by the same greed that had consumed our colonial rulers.
There have been long debates over rights to land resources since ancient times. Even the battle of Mahabharta in Hindu mythology was fought over land. With growing human population, there is an increased pressure to convert forest land for other uses like agriculture, mining, industry etc. The view of forests as property owned by the government largely disregarded the people who have lived within these forests for many generations. Generally, these communities depend on forest resources for their sustenance. Though they shared a close relationship with forests, having no legal rights over the land meant that they could be driven out of their forest homes at any point without their consent and no proper rehabilitation.
The definition of forest in Indian law was far from actual forests. Many areas were called ‘government forests’ without actual survey of who inhabited them.The Indian Forest Act 1927 and The Wildlife Protection Act 1972 allows government to declare any area to be a reserved forest, protected forest, or village forest and protected area. A forest settlement officer was assigned to ‘settle’ rights of people dwelling in these areas. This process was either non-existent or opaque most of the times. More than half of Indian National Parks have not yet completed the process of settlement of rights. Before FRA, due to the ambiguous definition of forests, millions of people became encroachers within their own homes, and were evicted. With this came evils of torture, bonded labour, extortion, sexual assault, and violation of basic human right to life. The criminalisation of entire indigenous communities could be one of the biggest failure of Indian democracy which failed to protect its own people. Hence, FRA implementation was a watershed moment for our country where about 250 million people live in and around forests, out of which about 100 million belong to indigenous tribes.
FRA recognized three types of rights: 1) land rights 2) right to collect and use minor forest produce, grazing lands and water bodies 3) right to protect and conserve forests resources. Besides this, it granted them rights to intellectual property and traditional knowledge of biodiversity. Few traditional rights of hunting, trapping and extracting parts of animals were excluded keeping in mind species conservation. Rehabilitation and right to basic amenities was granted in case of illegal eviction and forced displacement.
FRA faced a strong opposition from wildlife conservationists who thought the law would make it impossible to create inviolate core zones for wildlife. Some endangered species like tigers are territorial and require huge tracts of forests for immediate conservation. However, supporters have argued that the act would in fact supplement conservation ethically by resettling indigenous population when they have to be displaced. Moreover, the act promotes community conservation of their own resources by providing it a legal basis. Conservation of forest resources is essential for communities whose livelihoods depend on these resources. Because if they overexploit these resources, they would perish and nature would select against them. The life of forests and humans dwelling within them is inextricably tied to each other. This fact is hard to comprehend by city dwellers and writers of laws who have grown up in artificial environments.
FRA was lauded as a saviour of indigenous communities and cases such as the struggle of Dongria Kondhs of Niyamgiri against mining giants like Vedanta were termed as modern Chipko Movement. It provided a check on unbridled expansion of industry giants into the forests. It broke the cycle of suppression of those whose voice couldn’t be heard. Advocacy groups helped these communities in exercising their rights. Personally, I felt it was a huge achievement by our nation.
Situation in Chhattisgarh
What happened in January in Chhattisgarh shattered my belief in the system and highly disconcerted me. The FRA was violated by the hands of those who implemented it. On 8th January 2016, Chhattisgarh government made a historical decision of revoking the forest rights of tribals of Ghatbarra village in Surguja district. The villagers were allegedly using these rights to prevent mining in their villages.
Ghatbarra villagers had claimed community forest rights over 8 forest compartments. Out of this title deeds were granted only for 3 compartments. The remaining 5 compartments were allocated to Adani Minerals Private Limited. The coal blocks had received clearance in 2012 while the forest title deeds were granted in 2013. This formed the basis of cancellation of the deeds by the state forest department. It was a direct violation of FRA as there is no provision of cancellation of rights that have been once granted as the forest rights were as fundamental as the right to life. Forest clearance was given for coal blocks without the settlement of forest rights, another violation of FRA. Moreover, diversion of forest land to mining required consent of attached gram sabhas. The consent wasn’t procured. On the contrary, the gram sabhas in Surguja had formally opposed mining in December 2014.
Apart from the land dispute, the National Green Tribunal had cancelled the forest clearance for the project in 2014 as that environment ministry had not assessed the effect of mining on biodiversity of the region. But the stay operations were removed by the Supreme Court.
About 40% of the Chhattisgarh’s population is tribal. The mineral rich state contributes to about 13% of the total minerals produced by the country. Hence, there is a constant conflict between these communities and industries. The recent auctioning of gold mine at Sonakhan was yet another mockery of FRA where the Baghmara villagers weren’t even aware that Vedanta had won the country’s first gold mine auction at their home. In Kanker district, the state refused to recognise FRA claims of 12 Adivasi villages as a rail line was planned in that area.
Bastar has faced some of the worst abuse of forest rights. It gave birth to the infamous Naxalite Movement in the state. What followed was a spate of attacks and counterattacks between CRPFs and the Naxalites. Marred with conflict and confusion, the children and the villagers of the state faced the dire outcome. As millions of adivasis were being harassed for their lands, anyone who raised their voice against the abuse was labelled a Naxalite. It is a perfect example of how the situation can be manipulated by those with conflicting interest in their favour. The lack of attention of Main Stream Media on issues of human rights abuse in the most militarized zone of India is worrisome.
Implementation of FRA- Current situation
The implementation of FRA is still patchy in almost all parts of India. The slow progress is due to lack of awareness, corruption, procedural difficulties, and inability to prove occupancy. Sometimes, tribals like Baga who practise shifting cultivation find it hard to prove occupancy in a region. Mining industries bring in corruption by trying to buy consent of sarpanch and staging public hearings as well as forging consent like in Latehar district of Jharkhand. The reluctance of forest department to give up control is another hindrance. It is hard to implement FRA when forest department is solely responsible for it. Giving a stronger voice to tribal department and civil society would accelerate implementation.
In June, Prime Minister Modi had asked Ministry of Tribal Affairs to ensure that FRA is implemented in all states and tribals receive land rights within two months. If FRA is fully implemented in its true spirit, about half of the country’s forests would be owned by the forest dwellers (Oxfam report). However, the noble purpose was offset by the removal of community consent clause in amendment of the land ordinance bill, 2013. The clause was brought back after the government faced fierce protests.
The blindfolded pursuit of so called ‘development’ has made FRA and other community consent clauses and environmental clearances as deterrents that need to be dealt with at any cost. Under Prakash Javadekar’s rule, the environmental clearances took an average of 190 days compared to earlier 600 days. The environmental clearance procedure was simplified disregarding its purpose of meeting environmental needs. He was undoubtedly rewarded by getting promoted to the Cabinet rank. At the same time, M S Vasva, the junior tribal affairs minister was dismissed for resisting dilution of FRA. I was highly disappointed in our government for using these positive and negative reinforcement techniques.
The forests of our country are at peril when the ministry entrusted to safeguard forests loses direction. It ends up felling forests through awards of clearances and minimisation of community’s participation in this process. The situation would improve when FRA is seen as a part of making socially and ecologically informed decisions rather than a roadblock.
The stakeholder management is necessary in situations like this. It is essential to empower those who have traditionally been out of the system. I myself don’t believe in the ‘system’ but if system and law is what is required to bring out innate human empathy, I support it. Who are we to exercise control over land? The interaction between land, and species including humans is organic. None of the two interacting parts can exercise control over the other. It is our ego that makes us believe in our capability to do so. The pragmatism of my philosophy seems unlikely, even to me. Till the time utopia becomes a reality, I would continue to support what I believe is right. I have my fingers crossed that FRA empowers our fellow countrymen and believe in our government to act ethically on this ground.
Disclaimer: The author is politically agnostic and do not wish to be labelled a leftist or a rightist. The author identifies herself as only human.