The forest lands of India cover nearly 23% of the total land area of the country. It is also the source of livelihood for more than 200 million people, that is nearly 20% of the country’s population. The higher concentration of such lands lie in the Central and Eastern states, where a large section of the population are tribal groups and the areas classified as the Fifth Schedule areas by the Constitution of India. The poverty reflected in the lives of these tribal groups only shows a history of exploitation, right from fuedal lords and colonial powers of the past, to scrupulous moneylenders and an apathetic State of the current times. Uncultivated areas, whether grasslands or forested, have historically supported gathering and hunting, provided fertile land available for conversion to different forms of agricultural use, and also a range of commercial timber and agro-forestry products. It is in the light of this that the Indian Forestry Act of 1864, passed by the British chose to create the Indian Forestry Services to territorialise forest lands for the benefit of the State, and hence affecting the livelihoods of the Primitive Tribal Groups against whom, the British were engaged in violent and bloody conflicts during their regime. The structures thence created had shown a remarkable persistence in depriving the indigenous dwellers of their customary rights even five decades after independence. It was only in 2006 that the Scheduled Tribes and Other Traditional Forest Dwellers (Recognition of Forest Rights) Act, (FRA) was passed by the lawmakers of the nation. It marked a watershed moment in the history of tribal development in India “to recognize and vest Forest Rights to the marginalized and vulnerable who are dependent on forests for their sustenance and their existence.”
The Act in itself was implemented only as late as January 2008 onwards. It helped mobilize and unite several movements across the country that aimed at restoring the traditional rights over forest resources to the indigenous groups. It was also for the first time an Act had recognised thehistorical injustice perpetrated by the state: ” the forest rights on ancestral lands and their habitat were not adequately recognized in the consolidation of State forests during the colonial period as well as in independent India resulting in historical injustice to the forest dwelling Scheduled Tribes and other traditional forest dwellers” (FRA 2006). The Scheduled Tribes who constitute about 8.3% of the country’s population depend on the forest for their incomes, food and fuel- through procuring, processing and selling of minor forest produce. The FRA empowered the tribal people as individuals to hold and live in the land for habitation or self-cultivation; and as a community, to collect, use and dispose Minor Forest Produce. It also gave the community, as a cooperative council such as the Gram Sabha and Palli Sabha, to take decisions regarding the sale, transfer, acquisition and conversion of such forest lands. This also gave rights to the groups to indulge in fisheries, conservation and protection of wildlife habitat and right of access to the bio-diversity and intellectual property rights over knowledge related to that biodiversity.
In the few years following the implementation of the Act, even the Ministry of Tribal Affairs complained of its ineffectiveness due to brazen noncooperation of the bureaucrats, political heads and private agencies in ensuring the welfare of the forest dwellers. All sorts of reports, ranging from private market players exploiting the tribal producers to Revenue officers harassing the groups for fines and petty offences, abound newspapers and various committee reviews. The criminalisation of the innocents, as encroachers of forest lands, and further their produce being declared as illegal goods in the market, has broken the tribal spirit and their means to livelihood. Even as the groups dutifully file for title deeds to land preserved and cultivated by their ancestors for generations, the Forest Department shows no hurry in clearing the petitions, some of which remain pending for more than five years! The village based forest management committees too are rendered powerless, as they have little or no power in identification or verification of forest land for applicants. The farce that has become of the Forest Rights Act lies in the fact that it continues to concentrate authority in the hands of the higher-ups rather than devolve it to the Gram Sabhas. Indurable delays, corrupt connivance of forest officials with middlemen, wanton criminalisation of tribes folk mar the implementation of FRA.
As per reports published by the Ministry of Environment and Forests, “some of the major concerns regarding implementation of this Act are related to high rate of rejection of claims , little progress in the recognition of community rights and habitat rights of PTGs , convening of Gram Sabha meetings at the Panchayat level, insistence of particular form of evidence, claimants not being informed about rejection of claims and inadequate awareness about the provisions of the Act and the Rules, etc.” All this calls for re-training and orientation of Forest Department officials, efforts for the MoTA and MoEF to look beyond grants and freebies for tribal development, active and willing dialogue with tribal leaders and an empathic state government to ensure effective implementation of the Act. Though the Act still continues to evolve with recommendations for amendment and amendments, the government still needs to do more to ensure that ultimately the rights rests with the people.