The Bharatiya Janata Party led central government under Prime Minister Narendra Modi is yet again deliberately undermining the Forest Rights Act, 2006 (FRA). In the ongoing Supreme Court case filed in 2008 and again in 2016 by a group of wildlife groups and retired forest officials challenging the constitutional validity of the FRA, the solicitor general remained absent on September 12 (last hearing), while the court accepted three new fresh applications moved by the petitioners, all predominantly against the interests of tribals and forest dwellers.
The applications seek freezing of the FRA process and demands “encroachment” data from Forest Survey of India and its impleadment. The next hearing is listed for November 26.
These developments inside the country’s apex court is predominantly threatening the lives of millions of tribes and forest dwellers since the court in February this year had directed the eviction of over a million people whose claims under the FRA have been rejected, which was later subsequently stayed. When enraged tribes called for a countrywide shutdown, the central government had to urge the apex court to stay its order in this matter.
If one looks at what led to the enactment of the FRA and the role of subsequent central and state governments in the implementation of the FRA, along with the arguments of the sections against the act in the name of protection or conservation of forests and wildlife, and the arguments of both the tribal rights activists and experts, one picture emerges: the culmination of the forest rights of tribal communities in India.
Also read: Forest Rights Act vs Indian Forest Act: Conservation or Conservatism
It is significant in understanding why the FRA was enacted. The FRA was preceded by a prolonged set of struggles by the tribal communities who made the lawmakers listen to their sufferings with regard to their rights over forest lands. In fact, the preamble to the Act seeks to correct the historical injustice done to the tribes and forest dwellers during the colonial period as well in independent India by recognising their rights.
In August 2016, a government appointed committee that looked into the matters pertaining to the implementation of the act, headed by Bhagat Singh Koshyari, had categorically stated that the “progress made in implementation thereof so far by various states and union territories has been found to be quite disappointing, thereby defeating the very purpose of the act.”
Even the Supreme Court’s February 2019 order of forceful eviction of those persons whose claims have been rejected proved to be a hasty one as several state governments are now admitting that there were loopholes in the implementation process. For instance, recently, the Maharashtra government through two separate affidavits filed before the Supreme Court had blamed its own bureaucracy for unlawfully rejecting forest rights claims. It stated that at least 22,509 forest rights claims across Maharashtra were rejected without appropriate assessment of the claims.
Furthermore, nine state governments which rejected more than 13 lakh forest rights claims had admitted to the Ministry of Tribal Affairs that “due process” was not followed in the rejections. These states include Andhra Pradesh, Chhattisgarh, Karnataka, Madhya Pradesh, Odisha, Tamil Nadu, Tripura, Uttar Pradesh and West Bengal.
Who are opposing the FRA?
Hardline conservationists decried that the FRA has been ‘misused’ leading to massive “encroachments” that is causing harm to the forest lands and wildlife. While this section of people do not have any scientific evidence to substantiate their argument, recent studies have observed that forest management by local communities has proved fruitful including in reduction of deforestation and poverty. Also, data with the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) and the Forest Survey of India have indicated the benefits of community forest management.
Also watch: AFSPA-like Changes to Indian Forests Act?
Consider this case about wildlife. As per the tiger census conducted in 2018, the number of tigers in Biligiri Ranganatha Tiger Reserve has increased from 35 in 2010 to 65 in 2018. The increase in the number of tiger is significant as hundreds of Soliga tribes in the area were granted forest rights claims during the period.
Status of FRA: Downward Progress, Further humiliation of Tribal communities
According to the Ministry of Tribal Affairs, at the end of April 2019, of the total 40,89,035 individual forest rights (IFR) claims received across the country, only 46% or 18,87,894 claims received land titles. Of the total 1,48,818 community forest rights (CFR) claims received, only land titles for 76,154 claims (51%) are distributed. This has been the progress in the last thirteen years. The ministry hasn’t published the monthly progress report after the Narendra Modi government came back to power in May 2019.
FRA in Narendra Modi Regime
In the last four years, the number of Indigenous Forest Rights (IFRs) distributed has increased by only 13%, while over 34,000 CFRs land titles have been distributed. In other words, more than half of the claimants are urging the government to realise their rights, but the central government has other priorities.
The Modi government has proposed a draft national policy in 2018 and amendments to the Indian Forest Act, 1927 (IFA). Experts have criticised both the proposals as pro-corporate and at the behest of the tribal rights. The proposed reforms in IFA could nullify several provisions of the FRA such as the powers granted to the gram sabhas.
NewsClick has earlier reported that the Modi government either re-interpreted or changed numerous regulations related to forestland governance, all significantly in favour of corporate interests, but at the cost of tribal rights.
It is also important to understand how the tribal ministry was overridden by the environmental ministry during the first term under Modi as the tribal ministry had openly expressed resentment over the other ministry.
Also watch: Denial of Forest Rights to Adivasis
It is clearly evident that the central government is yet again undermining the FRA, despite numerous loopholes in its implementation process. By adopting such a way of dealing with the indigenous people of the country – who are again under the threat of being rendered homeless – the BJP seems to be forgetting the historical injustice meted out to the communities and the mass mobilisations that triggered the FRA enactment. Perhaps, the right wing party is also underestimating the consequences.