Forest Rights Act: whose baby is it after all?

VK Bahuguna

(The writer is a former civil servant)

November 19, 2020, 11:51:41   

The conservation of forests in India has always been a bone of contention for over more than a century now ever since the creation of a forest department in British India in 1864. The British enacted Indian Forest Act in 1865 and 1878 with detail prescriptions how to control and scientifically work the forest of India. The Act of 1878 was modified in 1927 as Indian Forest Act 1927 and today is the basis of management of forests in the country along with Wildlife Protection Act 1972 and Forest Conservation Act 1980.  The struggle for the access and control of the forest resources mainly by the tribal people intensified after the ex Jamidari and other princely state's forests were declared as reserve and protected forest. The government of India in 1989 termed these disputes as disputed settlement claims of tribal people and set up a mechanism at the district level with a committee consisting of Sub-divisional magistrate, Sub-divisional forest officers and the Sub-divisional Tribal welfare officer. But this committee remained either non-functional or did not do its job and the problem kept festering with rival political interests taking centre stage after the Supreme Court order in 2003 on eviction of all encroachments on forestlands. 

The National Democratic Alliance led government on February 5th issued a notification for settlement of these rights in a systematic manner. After the General election of 2004 taking clue from this, the United Progressive Alliance enacted the Scheduled Tribes and the Other Forest Dwellers (Recognition of Forest Rights) Act 2006.The Act recognized that Forest rights on the ancestral lands and their habitat were not adequately recognized resulting in Historical injustice with the scheduled tribes and other traditional forest dwellers, who are integral to the very survival of the forest ecosystem.

For the last 14 years the process of vesting the forest rights is under way under the provisions of the Act and still continuing. As per the Ministry of Tribal Affairs as on 30th June 2020, a total of 42, 52,124 claims have been filed. Of this 41, 03,001 were individual claims and 1, 49,123 were community claims. Of this 19, 09,249 individual claims comprising over 16.69lakh ha of forests were settled and vested with the people. 76,383 community claims over 35.22 lakh ha of forests were vested with the beneficiaries'. Thus forest rights of tribal people and traditional forest dwellers on around 52 lakh ha of forests stand settled. 

Now the question is what is happening to these people. This writer had recently visited the tribal belt of Madhya Pradesh in the Districts of Jabalpur, Seoni, Mandla, Umeria, Balaghat and Dindori with representatives of local NGO Jai Bharati Siksha Kendra, Kalyan Ashram and Bharat Vikas Parishad and met with a large number of tribal people in several villages and discussed the implementation of the Act. On the positive side in well stocked forests where Mahuwa, Chirongi etc are available the people have raised their income by at least three thousand. At one place in Dabra Khurd in Jabalpur district the management of 42 forest resources out of 75 have been transferred over 3500 ha to 12 village communities. But these forests from the point of view of management have become no man's land as neither the forest department is taking steps nor the communities have the wherewithal to do so because of lack of capacity. The proposal for creation of Van Dhan Centre by communities is being tossed between the collector's office and the DFO for past several months. Another proposal of the Dabra village community for preparation of the micro plan as per the provision of Act has not been forwarded by the Tribal welfare department of Madhya Pradesh to government of India for funding under tribal sub-plan for the past two and half years. The grass root level worker Mr Bharat Namdeo blamed this for the corruption in Tribal welfare department and huge amount of fund remained unutilized. If such things exist the social workers out of frustration are leaving these communities in lurch. The villagers of Dabra Khurd were asking for the Tendu Patta auction rights because in the existing process the Joint Forest Management (JMF) committees' gets a part of the sale money and not the community right committees. There is a question of viability of continuing JFM inthese areasand replacing it with a better people centric strategy.

There is thus confusion is prevailing in these villages on management of forests as the local forest officers feel that they are not allowed to operate in these areas and the people also do not approach themdue to lack of mutual confidence. In a meeting with this writer the well meaning local Chief Conservator of Forests agreed to hold a meeting with the people to develop a model for the management of Non Timber Forest Products. On the other hand the competitive politics is making the people still root for more individual rights than focusing on managing the community rights like we witnessed in a meeting with Baiga tribes of Dindori on 8th November 2020 when villagers said they occupied  6 to 8 ha but got much less. It is ironical that 86 % of the farmers in India are marginal with less than 2 ha of land.

The basic aim of enactment of this Act has therefore succeeded only partially. One social worker working with tribal felt that the government should set a final date for application by the people to stop the bickering and intense lobbying.The Act implementation suffers from lackadaisical and target oriented approach of the Tribal affairs Ministry. They are content with just settling the claims. The objective of this Act is to help both people and the ecosystem they are part of. The union government must consider making forest department responsible for preparing the micro plan and building the capacity of the people, for management the funds should be tied up from the tribal sub plan and through a scheme based on convergence from different department's sources need be done to develop the resources for livelihood and forest conservation. One major decision warranted is to continue JFM in other forest areas with second generation reforms but in areas where forest right Act is being implemented it should be replaced by community forest management with the communities having freedom to manage the resources with the technical support of forest department. The grass root level NGOs should be made stakeholders for better transparency and to support the communities in capacity building. The basic flaws in the Act's implementation need to be rectified by making the forest department nodal agency for execution of management and development of resources jointly with communities so that a single point delivery system with accountability exists. There is need of policy intervention by government of India so that 52 lakh ha of forests produce sufficient resources for the people and also remain ecologically viable. 


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