Have 'Rights' been finally granted to tribes and 'Traditional Forest Dwellers'?

The Govt informed Parliament in December that forest rights have been granted to 2 million forest dwellers in accordance to Forest Rights Act of 2006. But after conducting surveys, NGOs express doubts

Have 'Rights' been finally granted to tribes and 'Traditional Forest Dwellers'?

Raja Muzaffar Bhat

A decade and a half after the Forest Rights Act (FRA) was passed by Parliament in 2006, a majority of the Scheduled Tribes and Other Traditional Forest Dwellers (OTFDs) of the country are yet to receive entitlement under the historic legislation.

Bhubaneswar based NGO Vasundhara claimed after a study that not even 10% of forest dwelling STs (FDSTs) or OTFDs have been given entitlements under the Act in 1.72 lakh forest villages in the country.

The Act was meant to recognise and vest rights over forest land to FDST and OTFDs residing in forests for generations. The Parliament had conceded that rights on ancestral land and their habitat were not adequ-ately recognised in the consolidation of state forests resulting in histor-ical injustice to dwellers.

In 2019, however, it was revealed in the Supreme Court that over two million claims made by tribals over forest land had been rejected, and virtually all state governments conceded in court that the claims were rejected without due process of law.

Sasmit Patra, a Biju Janata Dal Rajya Sabha MP asked (unstarred question No. 2057) about the total land pattas/rights provided under FRA, 2006 to forest dwellers over the past three years, seeking state-wise and year-wise details.

From the list furnished by the Ministry of Tribals Affairs, it was found that Odisha, the best performing state, had distributed 4.5 lakh titles, 4,43,686 people conferred Individual Forest Rights (IFR) and 6,649 Community Forest Rights Claims (CFR). IFR is the title for forest land under cultivation for several decades. For STs the time limit is a minimum of 15 years and for OTFDs the time limit is that these individuals should be living in the area for the last 75 years or three generations.

Under CFR, forest land can be used for construction of playground, school, dispensary. This also includes rights over non-timber forest produce (NTFP). The Gram Sabha’s recommendations to this effect are screened at district and sub division levels. The district level committee (DLC) headed by the District Magistrate makes the final decision and land thus recognised under FRA cannot be sold or transferred.

Bihar, Uttarakhand and Himachal Pradesh are apparently the worst performing states. Bihar had given only 121 IFR titles between March 2019 and March 2021. In Uttarakhand only 157 IFR claims were finalised from March 31, 2019 to August 31, 2021. Himachal Pradesh finalised only 164 Individual claims and 65 Community claims.

In February 2019, the Supreme Court directed eviction of more than one million ST and other traditional forest dwellers from forest lands in 16 Indian states for “wildlife protection”.

The order was criticized by forest rights activists, forest dwellers and above all by the UN Special Rapporteurs for Human Rights. The Centre finally admitted before the Supreme Court that rejection of claims by state governments were illegal and requested the court to stay its eviction order. On 1st March 2019 , the Supreme Court stayed its own order to evict forest dwellers.

Non-BJP states better perfor-mers: As per data provided in Parliament, non-BJP ruled states had performed better. Chhattisgarh ranked second in FRA implementation after BJD-ruled Odisha. The Bhupesh Bhagel led Congress Govt had issued 4.23 lakh IFR and 21,967 CFR claims till August 31, 2021.

Maharashtra had settled 1.72 lakh IFR and 7,084 CFR claims. Madhya Pradesh issued the highest number of 27,976 CFR till August 2021. However, all the 27,976 community claims were settled by the previous Government headed by Kamal Nath that lasted for 15 months. Since then, between March 2020 and August 2021, the BJP Government in MP has settled only 7 or 8 CFR claims.

BJP ruled Tripura settled 1.27 lakh IFR and 55 CFR claims. West Bengal settled titles of 45,130 individuals and 686 community claims. In PM Modi’s home state Gujarat, only 95,363 individuals were conferred the rights and 3887 CFR claims were settled.

The community rights conferred on two dozen non-villages in Nayagrah, Odisha, for the first time includes joint titles to collect and use firewood. The villagers also have the right to collect, process, use and sell minor forest produce such as bamboo, kendu leaves (for making beedi) etc.

(Author is an independent writer & researcher based in Srinagar)

(This article was first published in National Herald on Sunday)

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