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Ten years of the Forest Rights Act: Opportunity lost?
Hari Bandhu Kanhar (45 years) is a Gond tribal of Jhankarmunda village, district Bolangir, Odisha whose family recently received legal title over his forest land under the Forest Rights Act, 2006. On being asked about the difference of being landless and having a land title, he shared that the biggest difference is that he is not hounded by the fear of being evicted from his land.
Narratives such as these which resonate among the 200 million forest dwelling communities managing over 40 million hectares of forest land in India only confirm my belief in the transformative potential of the Forest Rights Act (FRA).
2016 marks the tenth year of the historic Act and we take a pause to reflect on its performance. We can look at this through the lens of FRA being the largest land reform opportunity, which the government can achieve at minimum cost. The other way of looking at it is that FRA’s dismal performance and recognition of only 3% community forest rights is a huge opportunity losti .The Ministry of Tribal Affairs (MoTA) data till August 2016iii shows that out of a total of 42,09,403 claims received,a meagre 16,94,587 titles have been distributed.ii
All roads in this case lead to a lack of political will and commitment to implement FRA both at state and national levels. While that sounds like a ‘lazy excuse’, the structural problems faced by the communities in claiming their forest rights and at the policy level are suggestive of political reluctance.
With no resource allocation to back the implementation of FRA and a weak Ministry of Tribal Affairs, which is severely understaffed, the pattern percolates to the state level where officials still lack knowledge of the provisions of the Act. In most states the claiming process is challenging — forest rights committees are still not constituted at the hamlet levels; there is no support to communities to fill the individual and community claims as per process. Very few states are using GPS to map their customary boundaries. Repeated notice for joint verification of the claims by the revenue and forest departments go unheeded and lead to rejection of claims without assigning reasons. Where titles have been recognised, they are incomplete, limited or with conditions. The list is endless.
In the states of Jharkhand, Chhattisgarh and Odisha that account for one-third of the total tribal population of India, one-fourth of the total forest wealth and two-thirds of the total mineral resources, the situation is grim. Jharkhand has recently come under the glare of even the Prime Minister’s Office for completely failing in recognising FRA. For a state that houses nearly half of its Scheduled Tribe (ST) population below poverty line, out of more than a lakh claims submitted, 25,791 claims have been rejected till August 2016 . Chhattisgarh has the dubious distinction of not even reporting the community claims received and titles distributed in this period. As another first, the community forest rights title of Ghatbarra village in the Hasdeo Arand forests was cancelled to facilitate coal mining in the area. This was despite the National Green Tribunal suspending the forest clearance given to the mining company in violation of the FRA in Parsa East and Kete Besancoal blocks.
Odisha could claim to be first among equals. It has recognised the highest number of titles; though it has recognised only 6% of its community forest rights potential. Even among the titles that have been recognised, problems abound—forest land areas have not been demarcated, the record of rights has not been updated and titles have been given to joint forest management committees (JFMCs) rather than the Gram Sabha.
This situation has been further compounded by various efforts made by the government, through the dominant Ministry of Environment Forests and Climate Change (MoEFCC), to thwart and dilute where FRA is being implemented. To note down a few- there are efforts at diluting informed consent by Gram Sabhas when forest land is diverted for non-forest purposes, and introduction of the new compensatory afforestation Act which will usher in forced plantations on community forest areas. Notification of village forest rules in Maharashtra which hands over management of forests to JFM committees, and recently the attempt at bringing in a new forest policy which completely undermines FRA are also notable.
While the struggle ahead will be more intense than the last decade, beacons in the form of communities asserting their forest rights and resulting livelihood gains needs to be prime focus. Experiences from Gram Sabhas gives us hope. In Gadchiroli, Maharashtra, they were able to auction bamboo and tendu leaves and earn lakhs of rupees as profit. This was also the case of community forest resource rights inside protected areas in Simlipal tiger reserve of Odisha. Communities in Rajnandgaon district, Chhattisgarh are successfully raising and managing bamboo plantations too.
The other thing we as civil society need to do is to be consistent in our demand for accountability from the government to fulfill its promise of undoing the historical injustice towards our forest dwelling communities. After all it is a win-win situation for all — when community’s rights are recognised, they are motivated to sustainably manage their forests and livelihoods. The government can then be able to meet its commitments towards climate change, address the left wing extremism affected areas and achieve low cost land reforms!
Written by: Sharmistha Bose, Theme Lead Economic Justice, Oxfam India
i A Citizens Report on Promise and Performance of The Scheduled Tribes and Other Traditional Forest Dwellers (Recognition of Forest Rights) Act, 2006, or FRA after ten years of Enactment. December 2016. CFR-LA, India , 2016
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