Forests in India house over 250 million people whose home, hearth and livelihood comes from their forest dwellings for generations. However, forest dwellers in India are among the most marginalized and neglected sections of the society comprising primarily of tribal and Dalit communities whose livelihood depends on the forest produce of the land that they have used for centuries.
The abolition of the Zamindari system exacerbated the situation as more common lands were nationalized and converted into protected forests. This was later amended and the traditional occupants were given titles based on the length of occupancy. This, however, gave disproportionate power to the Patwaris (keeper of land records), and given the non-existence of ownership records corruption became rampant. The FRA sought to rectify this by providing a clear, transparent and environmentally friendly procedure for the resettlement of the people and displaced wildlife.
However, the act is not serving the purpose with which it was enacted. Where is the implementation lagging behind? Would the current government keep up the Centre’s commitment of equality in land ownership notwithstanding the differences political ideology with the previous UPA government? What exactly is the FRA? These are some of the issues examined in this essay.
The Scheduled Tribes and Other Traditional Forest Dwellers (Recognition of Forest Rights) Act, 2006
The Scheduled Tribes and Other Traditional Forest Dwellers (Recognition of Forest Rights) Act, 2006 (FRA) was enacted in 2006 to address the sever shortcomings of the 1927 act. The IFA resulted in the alienation of tribals and other forest dwellers. It is an act which protects the land ownership titles in the tribal belt of India and had been demanded for long to safeguard the interests of the most marginalized people of the country. However, the implementation record (including guaranteed land holdings under the act) has been poor.
Discrepancies in tribal forest land allocation and redistribution has also been at the centre of India’s Left Wing insurgency in what is called the Red Corridor. Therefore, he 2006 act’s importance multiplies in not only addressing the injustice done to the traditional forest dwellers over centuries, but also as a means to combat what has been called India’s worst national security crisis.
The 2006 act was radically democratic in many ways as it acknowledged the historical injustices done to the forest dwelling communities and set a forward-looking path to correct those. There are twelve types of rights enlisted in the 2006 act to undo the damage that has already been done and these include rights to land occupation, forest produce, both timber and non-timber, management of community forests and home and hearth. It also empowers and makes accountable the traditional forest dwellers to protect the biodiversity, water resources and other resources of the forest as well as catchment areas and seeks to establish a community based forest administration in the country with the Gram Sabhas at the helm of affairs. The land ownership titles will be ascertained to the maximum limit of 4 ha per person by a committee comprising the District Collector, the Divisional Forest Officer and the Superintendent of Police.
There are many misconceptions surrounding the act for which it has come under criticism. Many people believe that the FRA is meant to redistribute land up to a maximum ceiling of 4 hectares per person. However, the truth is that this act is not a land redistribution act and does not empower anyone to do so. On the issue of land, the FRA requires the state and central government to legally recognise the lands as revenue lands on which forest dwellers have been carrying out farming prior to 13 December 2005.
For non-Scheduled Tribes (STs), this recognition comes after proving that they have been farming on the land in question for the past 75 years. As per the FRA, the traditional forest dwellers and STs will only receive rights to ‘land under their occupation’ and no more, for the time specified up to a maximum of 4 hectares per person. Any claims over the stipulated 4 hectares will not be entertained. No new land distribution will take place and the titles given as per the act cannot be sold or transferred, except through family hierarchy. It is not a welfare scheme and deals with defining the forest land and its occupation.
In 2012, then Minister for Tribal Affairs, Mr. Kishore Chand Deo had written a letter to the CM’s of states, urging them to implement the act properly. However, despite all the efforts by the previous government and civil society activists, the implementation record of the act has remained poor. Moreover, widespread corruption which still exists in the process of implementation has hindered the powers of the act substantially.
Critics of the FRA say it was enacted by the government for privatizing natural resources and making vote banks out of the forest dwellers. But the basic principles of the act were largely misinterpreted and contorted based on state-wise implementation record.
The enactment of the 2006 FRA is an example of inclusive, democratic and enabling legislation which came in a favorable pro-poor political environment. However, the implementation rests with local authorities and state governments where the failure is stark. According to Ministry of Tribal Affairs’ report from January 2014, 36, 54,420 claims have been filed and 14, 18,078 titles have been distributed. Further, 15,864 titles were ready for distribution. A total of 31, 06,690 claims have been disposed of (85.01%). Unfortunately, there are no records of details of the amount of land under each title. Whether these gains for the forest dwellers are consolidated in forms of actual substantive rights and access remains an open question. There is also no readily available record of uses for such land. Various non-government report states that this number is grossly inflated and titles to a full authorized 4 ha per person are rare in all the states.
There are also several cases on encroachment still pending in the courts of different states wherein, lack of proof of occupation has led to a traditional forest dweller to be incarcerated as a squatter.
The role of Gram Sabhas has also not been exemplified under the act yet on ground. Moreover, mining activities on traditional forest land in some of the states by corporate houses is still going unnoticed.
In spirit, this act is phenomenal but the leakages in implementation reduce it to the status of just another act which is supposed to work but isn’t.
The current government needs to look beyond political differences and keenly push for a better implementation of the FRA under due process. This is one of the landmark legislations which follow the democratic principles enshrined by our founding fathers in our constitution.