Forest Rights Act: Issues and Constraints
By: Abhijit Mohanty1
Twenty three percent of the country’s geographical area has been designated as forest upon which an estimated more than 200 million people, mainly indigenous community live in or near the forest areas (Forest Survey of India, 2009). Since generations, these communities have developed a close symbiotic relationship with their forests. The livelihoods of the people living in the forested landscapes are inextricably linked to the forest eco-system. But, they lack legal ownership to their homes, lands and livelihoods. The situation is further aggravated with the advent of colonial rule; forests were seen as resource sumps for use and exploitation for the purposes of establishing colonial empire. Rights of local communities were callously ignored and replaced with Indian Forest Act, which empowered the Government to declare any land covered with trees as forest. This has significantly deprived local communities to access and use, restricted their entry and denied them use of forest resources which had been theirs since time immemorial.
It took more than five decades to the Indian Government that a “historical injustice” was done to forest dwellers by the failure to recognise their rights. In an attempt to undo this historic injustice, the “Schedule Tribe and Other Traditional Forest Dweller Forest Rights Act, 2006” was operationalised in 2008. This act could be considered as India’s step towards the decentralised forest tenurial reform and empowers the forest rights holders, Gram Sabhas and local level institutions with the right to protect, regenerate, conserve and manage any community forest resource.
But, has the Act really addressed the historical injustice? Have tribal communities been significantly involved and benefited? Is there as much excitement amongst the tribal communities, and how have the Act, and the various rules, instructions and guidelines are translated on the ground?
Progress and issues at the National level
Ministry of Tribal Affairs (MoTA) is the nodal agency for implementing FRA at the national Level. Over the period, MoTA claims that significant achievements have been made through the efforts of various State Governments under FRA. Since its operationalization in January, 2008, more than fourteen lakhs and eighteen thousand titles have already been distributed to eligible forest dwellers.
According to the status report of MoTA as of May 2015, the Tripura Government holds the highest percentage of titles distribution against number of claims received at 65.97 %, other states in this category includes Kerala at 65.54 %, Odisha at 57.24 %, Rajasthan at 49.09 % and Jharkhand at 44.73%. While the national average percentage of title deeds distributed over number of claims received is only 37.92. In absolute terms, 1,07,182 Community Forest Rights (CFR) claims have been received of which titles have been distributed for 35,267 claims and 42,51,118 Individual Forest Rights (IFR) claims have been received, of which 16,17,016 titles have been distributed.
(Source: Author’s compilation from MoTA status report as of May 2015)
On 14.07.2015, MoTA has conducted a Review Meeting on Implementation of FRA through Video Conferencing with the Principal Secretaries/Secretaries of the states of Odisha, Chhattisgarh, Andhra Pradesh, Maharashtra, Madhya Pradesh, Gujarat and Rajasthan. However, the issues and status of act shared at this meeting were not encouraging. Some of the general issues are;
- Recognition of CFR is extremely slow,
- High rate of rejections in Left Wing Extremism areas,
- Non recognition of rights in Protected Areas (PA),
- Conversion of forest villages into Revenue villages, conversion of Joint Forest Management areas into CFR,
- Non recognition of habitats rights of Particularly Vulnerable Tribal Groups (PVTGs).
While the MoTA continues to dismiss any dilution of the power of the Gram Sabha under the FRA, the Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change (MoEFCC) is seriously engaged in executing the will of the Central government to please the corporates. One such example is that MoEFCC has issued guidelines on 28.10.2014 seeking exemption of the requirement of Gram Sabha consent. This is not only illegal and arbitrary towards FRA, but it also poses a threat to the rights of the forest dwellers.
State Level Monitoring Committee (SLMC) is authorised to ensure that Rights recognition process is duly followed in Sanctuaries and National Parks especially in Tiger Reserves, because FRA is applicable in all forest areas. Also, Gram Sabha decision has to be taken into consideration prior to any relocation. But, it has been observed that FRA is hardly being implemented in these areas. In the last five years, there are many instances from various states like Madhya Pradesh, Jharkhand, Rajasthan and Odisha where the rights of people are not being recognised under FRA and instead efforts are expedited to relocate them.
In Odisha progress so far
The tribal population in the state constitutes 22.85 percent as per the 2011 Census report. There are total 62 different tribal communities including 13 PVTGs in the State. Odisha has the third largest concentration of tribal population in the country. About 44.70 percent of the State’s geographical area comes under V Scheduled Area. Therefore, smooth implementation of FRA is critical to facilitate political empowerment amongst tribals and OTFDs (Other Traditional Forest Dwellers) Please mention full forms to govern their forests for sustainable use and conservation. The ST/SC Development Department of Odisha is the nodal agency for the implementation of FRA at the state.
In 2014, the State had the distinction of issuing highest number of title deeds amounting 331939, out of which 328808 were IFR(Individual Forest Right) and 3131 CFR(Community Forest Right). The state attracted both national and international attention for the land mark Judgment on the Niyamgiri Case on 18.04.2013.The Supreme Court upheld the provisions of FRA, highlighting the Gram Sabhas power to prevent the destruction of its natural and cultural habitat, thereby also giving importance to the habitat rights of “Dongaria Kondh” who belong to PVTG.
But, the status of FRA in other areas is far from satisfactory. The state Forest Department is taking unjustified advantages of “Critical Wildlife Habitat” provisions and trying to relocate people from PAs (Protected Areas). Take for the recent example of relocation in the Similipal Wildlife Sanctuary under Mayurbhanj district of Odisha. Though, Similipal is one of the largest tiger reserves in the country, it is yet to get the National Park status because of the presence of human settlements in the core area. Here, on 09.09.2015, 35 families of Jamunagrah village were rehabilitated to Nabar – a colony developed in Udala. Earlier, the inhabitants of Jenabil village were relocated in 2010 and Upper Barakhamunda and Bahaghar villages in 2013. The irony is that, the relocated communities are still unaware that 3982.44 acres of forest land is issued under Community rights, claims Manohar Chauhan, an activist associated with Campaign for Survival and Dignity. He further adds that initially the inhabitants of Jamunagrah village demanded the second option of land against relocation, but the district administration compelled them to choose the first option of relocation against ten lakhs, showing them more benefits in it.
Status of FRA in the state
|No. of claims filed at Gram Sabha level||598179||12502||610681|
|No. of claims recommended by Gram Sabha to SDLC||480636||6211||486847|
|No. of claims recommended by SDLC to DLC||374274||6211||380485|
|No. of claims approved by DLC for title||368056||6211||374267|
|No. of title deeds distributed||344541||5000||349541|
|Extent of forest land for which title deeds issued
|No. of claims rejected||156793||301||157094|
(Source: MoTA Status Report of May 2015) [SDLC: Sub-divisional Level Committee, DLC: District Level Committee]
The above table reveals that the average settlement rate under IFR is only 57 % and around 26 % of claims have been directly rejected as of May 2015. The status of CFR is extremely poor, out of 12502 claims passed at Gram Sabha, only 5000 claims are settled. That means, the settlement percentage is 39.99 only. Under the IFR, the claimants are still unknown about the reasons for rejections of their claims. The ST/SC Development Department clearly states in its circular on 30.04.2015 that cause of every rejection needs to be communicated to the claimants. All the cases of rejection must be categorized on the basis of causes of rejection.
The ground realities
In the course of the efforts taken up by Agragamee, (a grassroot organisation working for upliftment of indigenous communities with a right based approach) for facilitating implementation of the FRA at the community level, we have found that there are many hurdles to forest dwellers. For instance, the joint verification processes are not properly carried out. Title deeds do not define boundaries. It has been found that in several cases, area indicated in the title deeds are less than a third of the amount claimed for. In almost all instances, the claims submitted by the Forest Rights Committees (FRCs) are only partially settled. Even, some families in the ST category are left out in majority of the villages. The explanation for not allowing claims of ST claimants is given as lack of BPL cards. But, this is not mandatory for the settlement of claims.
There are no instances where claims of OTFDs have been settled. All explanations about OTFDs states that proof of 75 years occupancy is not submitted. However, no such provision is there under the Act. Only, the applicant has to prove of depending on claimed land for 3 generations. The lack of awareness and misunderstanding about the Act has led to forest dwellers clearing forests to stake their claims, while ignorance about the cut-off date under the provisions for community rights and other details prevails.
Basna Santa, who is the President of FRC in Hatipokhna village under Nabarangpur district shares, “in many tribal villages, communities are not aware about FRA and their rights. The forest department officials have been forcefully promoting formation of JFMC/VSS and expanding plantation in our forestland. Since generations, we have been depending on forest resources like herbs, roots, fruits and timbers to sustain our livelihood. But, now it has been extensively used by the Forest Department only. They are even threatening us not to enter the forest”.
In Koraput District, the settlements made have inevitably excluded younger families who are yet to get their BPL cards. Saiban Jani, Sarapanch of Chikamba Panchayat under Dasmantpur block complaints that, “in Bariguda village, only 20 out of 54 claims under IFR have been settled, whereas all the claims were from STs. We have also filed 50 acres of forest land under CFR, but it is still pending. We have filed several petitions both at the block and district level, but they are not responding to our complaints”.
Similarly, in Marichaguda village, universal amount of land were settled to each claimants. During the joint verification, the forest officials deliberately deed land mapping up to 2 acres only, complaints Sundei Saunta a member of FRC. When the villagers enquired, the forest officials said as there is less amount of forest land in the village, so they cannot get land beyond 2 acres. After waiting a year, their claims were settled, each claimant received 2 acres of land. Sadhav Jani, a beneficiary of the village laments, “as agriculture is mainly rainfed in the region, on an average we have been cultivating 4-6 acres of forest lands. Now, sustaining livelihood within 2 acres has become difficult”.
Anla Majhi, the Secretary of Dasmantpur Mahila Mahasangha and a native of Mundar village shares that, “in many places, the joint verification was done haphazardly by the Forest Officials and Revenue Inspectors. They hardly visit to every field and did proper verification and mapping of the claimed land. Also, the signature of the FRC President is obtained under duress in many cases. Even the applicants are asked to provide Rs. 100-300/- per head for filing an application’’.
In most of the villages of Dasmantpur block, many FRC members are not even aware that they are in the FRC, they are ignorant about their role and responsibilities. In addition to it, there is lack of women representation in the FRCs and they are hardly involved in the claim making and verification process, shares Atul Kumar Nayak, who has been associated with Agragamee and actively involved in assisting local communities to stake their rights under FRA. He further adds that, “FRCs has been formed in revenue villages only leaving other un-surveyed/forest villages. In the entire process, bigger revenue Hamlets surpassing the true spirit of the PESA, 1996 and FRA, 2006’’.
Jholaguda is yet another village of Dasmantpur block consisting of 26 families belonging to the Paraja community of Adivasi. All the families submitted their claims amounting 143.5 acres under IFR and 80 acres under CFR on 02.05.2012. Since there was no response, they went to the Tahesildar and complained. They also met with the District Collector. Accepting their complaint on the grievance day, the Collector instructed the Tahesildar and WEO to follow up the matter and expedite the settlement of claims. But, nothing has been done in this regard. Ghasiram Saunta, an active youth leader of the village shares, “we have been visiting and complaining at block and district level regularly, but matter is still pending. Even the process of verification has not taken place at all. But we will not lose hope. It may be delay. We are ready to fight for our rights”.
The situation is peculiar when it comes about the inclusion of PVTG under FRA. According to Mr. Achyut Das who heads Agragamee, “there is lack of information and more confusion over the rights of PVTGs like nomads, pastoralists and shifting cultivators. Despite of certain provisions of convergence facilities available for FRA beneficiaries, it is hardly delivered to them. In this context, the instances of Chikamba, Girliguma, and Dumbaguda panchayats of the block are more relevant, where despite of several job demands made under MGNREGA for the land development work, it is rarely sanctioned, rather works like Ghat cutting and road repairing are always given easy sanction”.
Another major issue in the region is rejection of “Pahad Kisam’’, or “Hill Type”, lands under FRA. Claims to these have been turned down as this is not legally forest land, says a Forest Department Officer of Koraput. He shares that, “in the district, the Reserve Forest Areas is 478.86 square km, Demarcated Protected Forest is 984.58 square km, Unclassified Forests is 0.68 square km and other Forest area is 415.41 square km. The forest area is 22.5 square km to the total geographical area in the district and about 30% area is classified as “Pahad Kisam”. Communities have been engaged in protection and conservation of these areas since generations. But, the technical team has been rejecting a large number of claims as these come under the “Pahad Kisam”.
In the resettled villages of Thuamulrampur Block under Kalahandi District, the situation is even worse, as displaced communities have been given a raw deal. Only 22 out of 28 claims have been settled in the village of Dudunchuan. Here, against a total claim of 89.6 acres of agricultural upland, people have been provided 2 cent of homestead land each. Even worse is the situation of Pukijal, where despite repeated complaints to the District Collector, who is Chairman of the DLC ( District Level Committee) for Forest Rights, no land has been settled. Amended rules of 2012 for the FRA specifically mention that the SLMC can oversee the workings of the Act with respect to the displaced under provisions 3 (1) m and 4 (8). Thus, the DLC with the help of SDLC (Sub-divisional Level Committee) have to collect all the relevant information on the displaced, take note of their problems and treat it as information and must facilitate the claim-making process of the displaced so as to accelerate the process of recognising rights. But, this seems to remain only in pen and paper.
In Kashipur block of Rayagada district, the process of joint verification of forest rights has taken more than 5 years. At present, thousands of IFR and CFR claims are pending at SDLC and DLC level and even thousands claims said to have been remanded back to Gram Sabha. For example, in Chandragiri, Manusgaon, Taljhiri, Mandibisi, Dongasil, and Dhobasil Gram panchayats, more than 6000 numbers of claims are pending at the SDLC level, informs the WEO of the block. These claims were submitted to the SDLC during 2009, but claims were settled only in 5 out of the 40 villages. Most of the applicants complaint that they have received much less than what they had claimed for. It has been noticed that after the implementation of the act in Odisha since 2008, the average acre settled ranged within 1 to 1.59 acres only.
At present, the grievance redressal mechanism is primarily related to recognition of Forest Rights, but there is no such mechanism for post rights recognition. In this case, it needs to be clearly stated that whether SDLC, DLC or any other institutions will execute the task. SDLC and DLC should ensure to settle the pending and remanded claims back to the Gram Sabhas as top priority. CFR needs to be taken up in a mission mode as its status is extremely poor. MoTA should launch campaign on CFR by providing trainings to the members of FRCs, SDLCs, DLCs and also to the community. There is a need to review the women’s policies of the various governments and to undertake the implementation of FRA with a gender sensitive approach.
The unrestrained diversion of forest land should not be entertained further. MoEFCC should play a pro-active role in this regard. Forest villages and un-surveyed villages should be identified and listed out for recognition of forest rights. More emphasis needs be given on translating rights into livelihood gains through promoting convergence with MGNREGA, Watershed and other livelihood generation programmes. District specific data on STs, PVTGs, OTFDs and Single Women Headed Household should be made available in the website of the nodal agency at the state level. In order to achieve the true spirit of FRA, the real action lies with the states and a very strong coordination is required between different line departments and civil societies.
 The author is a development professional based in Odisha and writes on tribal development issues.
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