There are nearly 200 million tribals and other traditional forest dwellers in India who derive their livelihoods mainly from forest resources. However, in the absence of proper survey, settlement and land record, their customary rights over forest land have always been under threat. They are often considered encroachers of the land on which they live.

The effective implementation of the Scheduled Tribes and other Forest Dwellers (Recognition of Forest Rights) Act, 2006, which recognises the individual as well as community rights over forest resources, should have ended the historical injustice caused to the tribals by erstwhile governments. But the manner in which various State governments either neglected or slowed its implementation in the post 2006 period speak a lot about the tragedy of forest rights of tribals.

The Supreme Court order of February 13, 2019, asking States to evict people whose claims to forest land have been rejected by them, is a glaring example of this. The eviction order by the apex court was based on affidavits filed by the States. Thankfully, the Union Government filed a petition before the apex court to stay the eviction order. Although the eviction order has been temporarily stayed, the rights of tribals and other traditional forest dwellers remain highly uncertain.

If the stay order gets vacated, above one million people will be affected immediately. This is the case even though only a small proportion of the total potential claims have been submitted and considered so far. According to the Ministry of Tribal Affairs, up to September 30, 2018, 4.2 million individual and community resources claims were filed, of which, 1.9 million claims were rejected.

Once the 150 million potential beneficiaries of FRA submit their claims, at the current rejection rates, several millions of tribals and other forest dwellers would be deprived of their customary forest rights. It is unimaginable how democratically elected governments can do this to their own people. It may be mentioned that in the 133 parliamentary constituencies in India, the Forest Rights Act is one of the core issues in elections, as above 30 per cent of the eligible voters are the potential beneficiaries of FRA. It is not the fault of the people that many of them do not have required documentary evidence. Rather, the State governments have made no systematic efforts to recognise and record the individual and community rights of forest dwellers.

In most countries in Europe, forests are largely owned and managed by individuals and local communities, which not only help in generating incomes for them but also in conserving and using forest resources in a sustainable manner. Mexico, for example, has handed over 70 per cent of its forests to communities for management. In Vietnam, close to 30 per cent of the forests are managed by the local community.

India’s Forest Rights Act is also a step forward in the same direction. It empowers the communities to use, manage and govern forests for their livelihood as well as for the conservation and protection of forests. But its poor implementation remains an issue.

Implementation hassles

The key reasons for poor implementation of FRA include: lack of political commitment; lack of adequate human and financial resources with the Department of Tribal Affairs, which is the nodal agency for implementation of FRA; unkind and irresponsible forest bureaucracy which influences decision at various levels; poor or non-functioning of district and sub-division level committees, which consider the claims filed by gram sabhas .

In addition, some recent government decisions affect implementation of the Act, especially: notification of village rules under the Indian Forest Act, 1927 in Maharashtra; guidelines issued by the Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change in August 2015 to lease 40 per cent of the degraded forest in the country to private companies for afforestation; and forced plantation on land under shifting cultivation.

The analysis of e-green watch data by Bharati Institute of Public Policy shows that plantations by forest agencies are being done on land used by tribal communities and other traditional forest dwellers who are entitled to these lands under FRA. One cannot rule out increased violence and protest by forest dwellers because of such carelessness in the implementation of the Compensatory Afforestation Fund Act, 2016 (CAF).

Alternatively, if gram sabhas are involved in CAF Plantation Programme, about 30 million hectare of forest will come under effective protection and regeneration. It will also help meet the climate change mitigation goal for negative emission through additional carbon sequestration. Besides, 65 out of the 103 districts affected by Left-wing extremism have high individual forest right (IFR) and community forest right (CFR) potentials.

Implementing FRA in these districts will not only lead to the development of forest dwellers, but also build a relationship of trust and bond between them and the government, thereby reducing land conflict, Naxalism and underdevelopment.

A few success stories

Despite the poor implementation of FRA in most States, there are some success stories as well. In places where district collectors have played a pro-active role, tribals and other forest dwellers benefited from recognition of both individual and community forest rights. In Panchgaon village in Chandrapur district and Mendalkha village in Gadchiroli the communities were given the ownership right over bamboo in the forest in 2014 which helped double the productivity of bamboo in about three years. Besides, the communities successfully bargained collectively with traders for higher prices.

Besides, the Amaravati experience provides another example how the village communities, in Nayakheda, Upatkheda and Khatiyapur, have regenerated degraded forest lands and are growing species such as bamboo, amla and teak along with intensive soil and moisture conservation.

The way forward

Keeping in view the enormous economic, social and ecological benefits of individual and community forest management, the Centre in cooperation with State governments should implement the Forest Rights Act, 2006 in its right spirit.

The way forward would include: reviewing all rejected and pending claims to IFR and CFR expeditiously; ensuring regular meetings of district and sub-division level committees to consider and approve IFR and CFR claims in a time-bound manner; and building capacities of gram sabhas for governance and management of community forest resources.

Besides leveraging modern technology to map and monitor the implementation of FRA, the forest bureaucracy must also be reformed to serve as service providers to gram sabhas . There is a need to provide marketing and MSP support to non-timber forest products and create institutional mechanisms to support community forest enterprises for value addition.

Also, it is important that the Ministry of Tribal Affairs at the Central and State levels are strengthened with human and financial resources to help implement FRA on a mission mode.

The writer is former chairman, Land Policy Cell, NITI Aayog.