Attack on Forest Rights Act 2006

Recently, the Supreme Court of India issued one order which has the potential to evict more than 10 lakh forest dwellers from forest-lands across 16 states. The order came as a result of one petition challenging the constitutional validity of Forest Rights Act 2006 (FRA). Even after a joint letter issued by opposition parties and people’s organizations regarding Modi-government’s utter negligence in protecting the FRA against this petition, the BJP-led central government chose not to argue in the court against the misleading claims of the petitioners for the fourth time in a row. There is no doubt that it is a government-ploy of sacrificing FRA in order to satisfy the interests of the big corporates.

After a long struggle FRA came into existence and since its birth in 2006 it had become a strong weapon for the forest dwellers in fighting against illegal forest land acquisitions. In spite of its various weaknesses, it had created a ‘bone in the throat’ situation for the forest bureaucracy and the state, which are in favor of allowing unrestricted plunder of natural resources by the corporate giants. According to the Land Conflict Watch project, the total number of conflict between the State and the forest dwellers due to non-settlement or violations of FRA is 127, in which approximately 14,22,067 people are affected [1]. Thus, some petitioners, who are mostly, retired forest officials, ex-zamindars, or a handful of wildlife organizations (such as Wildlife First) challenged the constitutional validity of FRA by creating a false and misleading propaganda against it. Their actual aim is to dismantle the public process of deciding forest rights, granted by the FRA. Earlier, in 2014, several of India’s top conservation scientists and forest rights groups had jointly asked the petitioners in an open letter to withdraw their anti-FRA petition stating that their “petition is likely to facilitate the accelerated loot of this country’s natural resources” [2]. After the recent order they again condemned the apex court’s move. In a recent statement they said – “We do not regard this order as pro-conservation. On the contrary, it is a real setback for conservation in India. … The rights of local communities are an integral part of any sustainable and just model of conservation, as is now recognised in international law. …the FRA has been a key weapon in the hands of communities across India, from Niyamgiri to North Bengal to Uttarakhand to Maharashtra, who seek to protect forests and defend themselves against corporate and government resource grabbing” [3].

The petitioners declared that every single claimant whose claim has been rejected is a “bogus claimant”. In reality, the number of such “bogus claimants” is nearly 20 lakh and right now they are living their lives with a fear of eviction. As on 1st April 2018, across seven states (Chhattisgarh, Orissa, MP, Maharashtra, Karnataka, Gujarat and Bengal) of our country total 19.34 lakh claims are rejected among 42 lakh claims, which is nearly 46%. In case of Maharashtra, Karnataka, and Bengal, the rejection percentages are 64%, 64% and 68%, respectively [4]. However, the government’s own findings are sufficient to show that many rejections were illegal. In a letter written dated 12th July 2012, regarding the implementation of the FRA, the Ministry of Tribal Affairs, Government of India (MoTA, GoI) admitted the existence of several issues that are “impeding the implementation of the Act” [5]. The letter categorically mentioned about the areas, that are “proposed for development projects”, are witnessing forced relocation or displacement of tribal people “in violation of the provisions of the Act.” Illegal rejections of the claims are also reported in some states due to conscious efforts of the forest bureaucracy. The letter was annexed with some guidelines of the implementation of this Act, in which it clearly expressed that “no eviction should take place till the process of recognition and vesting of forest rights under the Act is complete”.

A major problem of FRA lies in the illogical definition of Other Traditional Forest Dwellers (OTFDs) mentioned in it. The OTFD status can be granted to “any member or community who has for at least 75 years prior to 13th December 2005 primarily resided in and who depend on the forest or forest land for bona fide livelihood needs” [6]. Such definition is problematic because numerous forests in our country have been notified in the 1950s. Moreover, the duration of 75 years date back to a period when most of these areas were under princely states or zamindars, with no survey and no government records. The corrupt forest bureaucracy takes full opportunity of the situation. The lack of awareness among the educationally backward OTFDs further paves the way of illegal rejection of their claims of forest rights. However, on the other hand, government documents on FRA clearly mention that FRA does not require that the claimants and their ancestors have to prove they lived in a particular village for 75 years at a stretch. Rather, their inhabitation or dependency on forest or forest land in a general sense will be sufficient to ensure their forest rights [7]. Moreover, while establishing their eligibility, OTFDs can even rely upon oral testimonies. Even the phrase “any member or community” mentioned in the definition of OTFDs rules out the need for every individual to prove their eligibility as an OTFD. However, the reality is different. According to the data collected from Chhattisgarh, Maharashtra and Orissa up to February 2018, the percentage of granted ST claims are 58%, 38% and 70%, respectively. However, in case of OTFD claims the figures are 10%, 16% and 2%, respectively [8]. Even government documents admit the existence of unlawful rejections of the claims “on the ground of lack of evidence of occupation of land for three generation”, where occupation of land is not at all required to be eligible as an OTFD [7].

Therefore, the continuous and intentional silence of the government’s lawyers in court and the latest SC verdict should be seen as a new measure to crush the resistance of the forest dwellers. Mass protests by various forest rights groups across the country under the banner of “BJP Sarkar Jawab Do!” forced the apex court to hold the eviction order for the time being. However, every concerned citizen of this country must be prepared to stand in solidarity with the forest dwellers in their larger struggle to save our country’s jal-jangal-jameen from corporate plunder.

 

 

References

[1]URL: https://www.landconflictwatch.org/node/498/all/all/all/all/13 (Retrieved on: 28/02/2019)

[2] URL: https://forestrightsact.com/statements/ (Retrieved on: 28/02/2019)

[3] URL: https://forestrightsact.com/2019/02/27/conservationists-speak-out-against-evictions-say-this-is-not-pro-conservation/ (Retrieved on: 01/03/2019)

[4] URL:  https://www.telegraphindia.com/india/tribal-backlash-on-bjp-brews/cid/1685576 (Retrieved on 28/02/2019)

[5] Letter of MoTA to The Chief Secretaries of all State Governments and The Administrators of all Union Territories, dated 12th July 2012.

[6]The Scheduled Tribes and Other Traditional Forest Dwellers (Recognition of Forest Rights) Act, 2006.

[7] Frequently Asked Questions on the Forest Rights Act; jointly published by MoTA and UNDP.

[8]URL: https://thewire.in/rights/the-other-in-the-forest-rights-act-has-been-ignored-for-years (Retrieved on: 28/02/2019)

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