On 13 February 2019, the Supreme Court of India (SC) in a case filed by some retired forest officials, along with four ‘wild life conservation’ organisations – the Wildlife Trust of India, the Nature Conservation Society, the Tiger Research and Conservation Trust and the Bombay Natural History Society – challenged the constitutional validity of the Scheduled Tribes and Other Traditional Forest Dwellers (Recognition of Forest Rights) Act, 2006 (FRA), ordered 21 state governments to evict all claimants whose claims have been rejected. This order could be used to evict and displace over 19 lakh households of forest people. The Wildlife Trust of India has been involved in buying land used for agriculture to establish an elephant corridor with the support of the Forest Department in Karnataka thereby displacing families from lands including non-forest lands to create passage for animals. They have been involved in similar efforts in Kerala, Meghalaya and in Assam. The BJP government at the centre had absented itself from the proceedings and in so doing affirmed its support for the conservationist lobby and its opposition to the land rights of forest dwellers.
On 28 February the SC stayed this order and asked state governments to report on how claims were processed. 20.5 lakh claims have been rejected according to state government affidavits. The numbers are disputed, not indicative of compliance with appellate procedures and have been criticized by numerous organisations including the Ministry of Tribal Affairs.
The FRA recognizes the role of forest dwellers in “…conservation of biodiversity and maintenance of ecological balance and thereby strengthening the conservation regime of the forests while ensuring livelihood and food security of the forest dwelling” people while the present policy thrust is to pitch them against the cause of wildlife protection.
Parallel dilution of Rights
The BJP government has consistently diluted the FRA through its tenure. The Right to Fair Compensation and Transparency in Land Acquisition, Rehabilitation and Resettlement (Amendment) Ordinance, 2014 and the National Forest Policy, 2018 both tried to subvert the role of the Gram Sabha under the FRA while amendments to the Mines and Minerals (Development and Regulation) Act, the Compensatory Afforestation Fund Act and a host of amendments to the Rules to FRA all undermine FRA. State governments have also resorted to undermining the FRA by invoking the Indian Forest Act 1927. States have also framed legislation and rules such as the Maharashtra Village Forest Rules, 2014 and Protected Forest Rules in Madhya Pradesh and the amendments to the Chotanagpur Tenancy Acts and Santhal Pargana Tenancy Acts in Jharkhand. The Forest department has used the claim recognition requirements and procedure required under the FRA to deny or delay claims while not allowing the process of appeals to proceed. To worsen the situation, forest department officials and police have continue to harass claimants; burn down forest villages, foist false cases on people living traditionally in the forests and resorting to violence against them.
Why are the claims Rejected?
The rejection of the claims that has continued across the country is rooted in the issue of control over the natural resources: the FRA was a legislative attempt to ensure collective ownership of the forest dwellers over the forests and its minor produce while the Forest Department, created under colonial rule, was never willing to give up their control over the forests. There is both financial interest in this and this is also seen as a necessity to establish control over the people in order natural resources at the disposal of capital. This conflict has existed despite the law and hence its implementation by the forest department has been dismal.
In making the forest department the implementing agency, there is an inherent conflict of interest. Even according to the Ministry of Tribal Affairs, most state governments have attributed the high rate of rejection of forest rights claims largely to duplication of claims — either by one forest dweller making multiple claims or persons from the same family making separate claims. This duplication obviously occurs due to the huge delays in processing these claims. Over 45% of forest rights claims countrywide are rejected. The reasons for rejection are not cited and hence it also becomes impossible to appeal against it. The people living in the forests – mostly Adivasis – are the most vulnerable people of this country, expecting them to have the resources to pursue the appeal process where the forest department challenging the claim is on the body of appeal is extreme.
The 28 February stay order is only a temporary relief – the entire parallel policy effort of the BJP government both at the centre and in the states to dismantle the rights under the FRA continues undeterred. This dilution is necessary to ensure access of big corporations to the natural resources, especially mines in these forest areas. The forest people residing in these areas across the country have waged a continuous struggle against commercial exploitation of the forests. It is they who protect the forests as recognized by the FRA and hence the attack on them and the law that protects them.
The NTUI stands with the forest working people in our collective struggle for rights to livelihood and in protecting our natural resources and our environment. We demand:
- An immediate stop to all evictions in forest areas
- An immediate stop to the dilution of the clauses of the Forest Rights Act by the central government and state governments
- Review of all rejected claims for forest rights under the FRA within three months
- A time-bound processing of claims under the FRA
- Removal of the Forest Department from the Appellate body for review of claims: government to be represented only by the Ministry of Tribal Affairs along with representatives of the Gram Sabha.