Forest Rights Act: Ten years later

Apoorva Srinivas, Devika Singh, Dwijaraj Bhattacharya, Smita Mutt,  Trisrota Dutta

MPP 2016-2018

December 18th, 2006 witnessed the historic passage of the Scheduled Tribes and Other Traditional Forest Dwellers (Recognition of Forest Rights) Act, 2006. Almost a decade later there is only a tiny portion of the vast forest land of India which has been brought under its purview. The tribal population all over India still face an ongoing struggle on a daily basis but with considerable support from civil society groups and Government officials, they have been partially successful in acquiring their rights under the act. We take this opportunity to share a glimpse of their lives which we observed during our fieldwork visit.

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This village Panchayat (or Rachabanda in Telegu), in Andhra Pradesh meeting, to discuss Rehabilitation & Resettlement package they will receive if the Polavaram Dam project goes through. The package being offered to them is as per the 2013 Act and not the updated version they are entitled to, causing them a loss of nearly Rs. 6,00,000. The project has forced the villagers to understand Land Acquisition, Rehabilitation and Resettlement Act 2013, Panchayat (Extension to Scheduled Areas) Act 1996 and Forest Rights Act 2006 – all laws that rely on vigilant and aware Gram Panchayats to protect local interests.

                In a corner of Rajasthan, this is the state of the government primary school. It has been running for approximately four years and at present, 52 stud
img_3528ents study under this shelter.
A local man is willing to donate the land it currently stands on but due to errors in his application filing, it was immediately rejected. He had originally filed an individual rights claim (as laid out in 3(1) of the Act) instead of a community development claim (as given in 3(2)).  Despite the ambitious promise of the Act, a lack of understanding of its details prevents many communities on Scheduled lands from receiving their basic rights, in this case, primary education.

                  The Nayakheda village in Achalpur block of Melghat in Maharashtra is one of the model villages in the area. The Gram Sabha with help from non-governmental organisations like KHOJ has successfully acquired its rights under the Forest Rights Act. The villagers have also established their rights over the vast forest land and taken it upon themselves to protect, conserve and reforest the area. It is the present generation which has made a rigorous effort to restore their forest and agricultural land, stopped migration and hence built a stable village economy.

                    In the Western Ghats of Karnataka, the seven forest dependent tribes of Kodagu district are the Jenu Kuruba, Betta Kuruba, Panjari Yerava, Pani Yerava, Malekudiya, Soligas and Marathi / Naiks.

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Image source: CORD

The socio-political and economic disparities can be explained due to the gaps in the implementation of Forest Rights Act, along with the lack of transparency and accountability of the Forest bureaucracy. Characterised by the colonial mindset of administration and solitary decision-making authority, the forest wealth and lives of the tribals has been under rigid surveillance by the forest department. The struggle for rights has been an ongoing saga but has gathered momentum in the form of civil society organisations which are playing an instrumental role in advocacy and campaigning for implementation of Forest Rights Act. Kodagu is also famous for the Nagarhole Park which is a part of the Nilgiri Biosphere Reserve, declared as the thirty-seventh Tiger reserve under ‘Project Tiger’ in 1999. Coorg Organization for Rural Development (CORD), an NGO has documented several case studies regarding the violation of rights and skewed rehabilitation arising from such conservation regimes.

Our fieldwork participation helped us see that the experience of the Forest Rights Act is varied, with different regions facing specific challenges. Despite this, many of India’s forest dwelling communities retain deep connections with the forest and can protect them more effectively than a distant bureaucracy.
The Forest Rights Act recognises this wisdom and the benefits of a ‘democratic forest’, but it needs sustaining commitment and cooperation in order to succeed.
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