The Scheduled Tribes and Other Traditional Forest Dwellers (Recognition of Forest Rights) Act, 2006, commonly known as the Forest Rights Act (FRA), is a landmark legislation in India aimed at recognizing and vesting forest rights in Scheduled Tribes (STs) and other traditional forest dwellers. Read here to learn more about the FRA.
The Forest Rights Act was enacted to address historical injustices, promote social justice, and conserve biodiversity.
The FRA was passed 17 years ago, and it is still far from fulfilling its promise to liberate forest inhabitants from historical injustices and to democratize forest administration.
History of forest rights in India
The history of forest rights in India is characterized by a complex interplay of colonial policies, traditional practices of forest-dwelling communities, and efforts to address historical injustices.
During British colonial rule, forest management policies were primarily focused on revenue generation and resource extraction, leading to the declaration of reserved forests and stringent forest regulations.
Tribal and forest-dwelling communities traditionally had symbiotic relationships with forests and faced displacement and loss of access to resources due to these policies.
- The colonial government introduced the Indian Forest Act, of 1878 which was based on the idea of ‘eminent domain’ which means that the ruler always owns all property.
- The statutes of the Indian Forest Act, of 1927, were the rights of settlements that were provided by the procedure but were followed hardly.
- ‘Forest Villages’ were created to ensure labor for forestry operations, wherein forest land was leased for agriculture to households (mostly Adivasis) in return for compulsory labor.
Following Independence, not much changed.
- In a rush to unite princely States and zamindari estates, the government annexed their forest regions without first determining the legal status of the local population.
- Then, to accommodate a burgeoning population, the government leased out forest tracts under several initiatives including “Grow More Food,” although these were never adequately managed.
- Eminent domain was again the basis for creating the Forest (Conservation) Act of 1980 and the Wildlife (Protection) Act of 1972.
- The Forest Conservation Act, of 1980 aimed at restricting diversion of forestland for non-forest purposes. While its intent was conservation, it often led to the displacement of forest communities.
The late 20th century witnessed the emergence of the “Recognition of Forest Rights” movement, highlighting the struggles of forest-dwelling communities for recognition of their customary rights.
In 2006, the Scheduled Tribes and Other Traditional Forest Dwellers (Recognition of Forest Rights) Act, 2006, commonly known as the Forest Rights Act (FRA), was enacted to recognize and vest forest rights in forest-dwelling communities.
- The period following the enactment of the FRA has seen the identification and vesting of forest rights in various states, providing legal recognition to forest-dwelling communities.
Salient Features of the Forest Rights Act (FRA) 2006
- Recognition of Rights: The FRA recognizes the rights of forest rights and occupation in Forest land in Forest Dwelling Scheduled Tribes (FDST) and Other Traditional Forest Dwellers (OTFD) residing in such forests for generations.
- Vesting of Rights: Forest rights, including individual and community rights, are vested in the forest-dwelling communities, providing legal recognition to their historical and cultural connections with the land.
- Categories of Rights: The act delineates various rights, including individual rights to cultivate, community rights over common property resources, and rights for traditional seasonal access to forests.
- Gram Sabha’s Role: The Gram Sabha, or village assembly, plays a central role in the implementation of the act. It is involved in the identification of beneficiaries and the extent of Individual Forest Rights (IFR) Community Forest Rights (CFR) or both that may be given to FDST and OTFD.
- Cultural and Religious Rights: FRA acknowledges the cultural and religious rights of forest-dwelling communities, ensuring the protection of their customs, traditions, and rituals.
- Consent of Gram Sabha: Prior informed consent of the Gram Sabha is required for the diversion of forestland for non-forest purposes, ensuring the participation of local communities in decision-making.
- Protection against Eviction: The act prohibits the eviction of forest dwellers from their traditional habitats, providing a safeguard against displacement.
- Role of Committees: Various committees, such as the District Level Committee (DLC) and Sub-Divisional Level Committee (SDLC), are established to facilitate the process of verification and approval of claims.
The Act identifies four types of rights:
- Title rights: It gives FDST and OTFD the right to ownership of land farmed by tribals or forest dwellers subject to a maximum of 4 hectares. Ownership is only for land that is being cultivated by the concerned family and no new lands will be granted.
- Use rights: The rights of the dwellers extend to extracting Minor Forest Produce, grazing areas, etc.
- Relief and development rights: To rehabilitate in case of illegal eviction or forced displacement and to basic amenities, subject to restrictions for forest protection.
- Forest management rights: It includes the right to protect, regenerate, conserve, or manage any community forest resource that they have been traditionally protecting and conserving for sustainable use.
Advantages of the Forest Rights Act
- Empowerment of Forest Communities: FRA empowers marginalized forest communities by recognizing and vesting rights, leading to improved socio-economic conditions and a sense of ownership.
- Biodiversity Conservation: By involving local communities in forest management, the act contributes to biodiversity conservation as these communities often have traditional knowledge about sustainable resource use.
- Social Justice: FRA addresses historical injustices by recognizing the rights of tribal and forest-dwelling communities, promoting social justice and inclusive development.
- Protection of Livelihoods: The act protects the livelihoods of forest-dependent communities by granting them legal rights to access and use forest resources sustainably.
- Participatory Governance: FRA promotes a participatory approach to governance, involving local communities in decision-making processes related to forest management.
Disadvantages and Challenges
- Implementation Challenges: Inconsistent implementation across states and regions has led to challenges in realizing the objectives of the FRA.
- Implementation of digital processes, such as the VanMitra software in Madhya Pradesh, has posed challenges in areas with poor connectivity and low literacy rates.
- Lack of Awareness: Limited awareness and understanding of the provisions of the act among forest-dwelling communities have hindered the effective implementation of the FRA.
- Bureaucratic Hurdles: Complex administrative procedures and bureaucratic hurdles have slowed down the process of recognition and vesting of forest rights.
- Conflict with Conservation Goals: There is an ongoing debate about the perceived conflict between recognizing traditional rights and the need for conservation, especially in protected areas.
- Incomplete Implementation: The process of recognizing and vesting rights is incomplete in many areas, leading to continued vulnerability and insecurity for forest-dwelling communities.
- Legal Challenges: Legal challenges and disputes related to the interpretation of provisions and verification of claims have resulted in delays and uncertainties.
The Act aims to provide a more democratic framework for forest governance, but it has been impacted by bureaucratic indifference, political opportunism, and resistance from foresters.
Some states want to recognize rights as soon as possible, but in places like Chhattisgarh, quick implementation frequently benefits the Forest Department, twisting rights and giving bureaucrats too much power.
Political leaders, bureaucrats, and environmentalists must understand and support the FRA’s core principles to address this problem. In the absence of such measures, historical injustices will persist, democratic forest governance will be absent, and the potential for community-led conservation and sustainable livelihoods will remain untapped.
-Article by Swathi Satish