An Uphill Struggle to Implement the Forest Rights Act

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    Syllabus: GS2/ Government Policies & Interventions; GS3/Conservation

    In Context

    • Political opportunism, forester resistance and bureaucratic apathy have affected the implementation of the Forest Rights Act.

    History of Forest Rights in India

    • Colonial period:
      • Prior to colonialism, local communities enjoyed customary rights over forests in their vicinity or even a large region.
      • The colonial takeover of India’s forests, however, resulted in a massive disruption of these traditions.
      • 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 maximise timber and revenue, and was also tasked with protecting ‘state’ property against local communities, now deemed trespassers.
    • Post-Independence:
      • Unfortunately, matters only worsened post-Independence. 
      • In the hurry to assimilate princely States and zamindari estates into the Union, their forest areas were declared state property without proper inquiry into who was residing in them.
      • Later, forest lands were leased out under the ‘Grow More Food’ campaign and other initiatives to meet the needs of a growing population, but were never ‘regularised’. 
    • The Wildlife (Protection) Act 1972 and the Forest (Conservation) Act 1980 (FCA):
      • Lakhs of communities were forcibly resettled when creating sanctuaries and national parks. 
      • In ‘diverting’ forests for development projects, the views or consent of local communities were taken into consideration.

    The Scheduled Tribes and Other Traditional Forest Dwellers (Recognition of Forest Rights) Act

    • About:
      • The Rajya Sabha in 2006 endorsed the Scheduled Tribes and Other Traditional Forest Dwellers (Recognition of Forest Rights) Act, enacted by the Lok Sabha. 
      • This Act, commonly known as the Forest Rights Act, or FRA, marks a watershed in India’s socio-environmental legislation.
    • Legal recognition:
      • Sanctioning a legal recognition of the rights of the traditional communities living in forested areas since time immemorial who have been kept deprived of their basic fundamental legal rights due to the draconian provisions of the colonial forest acts.
    • Reducing state control:
      • The Act also aims to shift away from the excess state control of the forests which were kept away from the purview of public discourse and discussion. 
      • This democratises and gives a respectful recognition to the tribal identity.
    • Local self-governance:
      • The aim is also for empowering and encouraging local self-governance amongst the marginalised tribal communities and forest dwellers.
      • Simultaneously, it seeks to create a much more democratic, bottom-up forest governance.
    • Conservation & developmental activities:
      • Conservation of the traditional knowledge and the intellectual property rights related to cultural diversity and biodiversity of the inhabitants of the forests.
      • The Act also provides guidelines for undertaking developmental facilities of the villages in and around forested areas.
    • Poverty alleviation:
      • Another important aspect dealt with the Act is the promotion of the vulnerable groups, aiming at alleviating their poverty levels and pro-poor growth.
    • End to Forest encroachments:
      • It attempts to put an end to the long-drawn conflict over supposed ‘forest encroachments’.

    Significance of the Act

    • About:
      • The FRA is remarkable because it acknowledges the historical (colonial) injustices and their continuation post-Independence. 
    • Individual forest rights (IFRs):
      • The issue of ‘encroachments’ is addressed through recognising 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. 
    • Community Forest Rights:
      • The issue of access and control is addressed by recognising the rights of village communities to access and use forests and 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 decentralised forest governance, linking management authority and responsibility to community rights.
    • Establishment of democratic procedure:
      • The Act lays down a democratic procedure for identifying whether and where wildlife conservation may require curtailing or extinguishing community rights. 
      • Simultaneously, 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.

    Challenges

    • Implementation barriers: 
      • Unfortunately, the implementation of the FRA has been plagued by
        • political opportunism, 
        • forester resistance and bureaucratic apathy, and 
        • the discourse around it by deliberate canards and misconceptions
      • Hence, 17 years after it was enacted, the FRA has barely begun to deliver on its promise of freeing forest-dwellers from historic injustices and democratising forest governance.
    • Absurd digital processes:
      • 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.
    • No 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).
      • Maharashtra, Odisha, and, more recently, Chhattisgarh, are the only States to recognise CFRs substantially.
        • Only Maharashtra has enabled their activation by de-nationalising minor forest produce, at least in Scheduled Areas, resulting in at least a thousand villages managing their own forests. 
        • Even here, illegal non-recognition of community rights in densely forested potential mining areas has led to protest and unrest.

    Way ahead

    • 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 unrealised.
    Daily Mains Question
    [Q] Political opportunism, forester resistance and bureaucratic apathy have affected the implementation of Forest Rights Act. Examine.