NEW FOREST RIGHTS ACT : A HISTORIC OPPORTUNITY

“For we people in this Devbhumi, the Scheduled Tribes and other traditional forest dwellers (Recognition of Forest Rights) Act has literally opened the gates of heavens”, a social worker in Nagnathpokhri, an old educational center in the interior of Chamoli district in Uttaranchal thus expressed his joy at the passage of the Act. Prophetic words and substantially achievable for people who have been wronged for centuries right from the British rule! And unfortunately, the same continued even in Independent India. The one most important contributing factor was the snapping of the symbiotic relationship between the forest-dwellers and the forests.

Since the dawn of civilization, families in the mountainous areas have been living in hamlets and villages on the periphery of forests. They needed to maintain a good number and variety of cattle for various uses and the animals needed fodder from grasslands and forests. Most importantly, forests absorbed rainwater and provided it in continuum for all types of local use, simultaneously keeping the streams and rivers full, to bring prosperity to the plains. And it is well known that the tribal people and those dependent for their sustenance on forests, never sought to destroy their closest ally – the trees. However, the colonial power either did not understand this symbiotic relationship or just ignored it in the short-term interest of obtaining timber.

By felling chir pine in large tracts of areas for resin collection, the ecology of such areas was destroyed, virtually turning such lands into deserts for locals. What to say of the former mixed jungles providing fodder, firewood and a host of minor forest produce, not even grass could grow on the floor of chir forest covered with pine needles. During the British rule, contractors were even allowed to cut one tree for themselves for every tree delivered to the department. Even after Independence, the contractors had a free run in denuding the forests, often in collusion with the officials.

Then, almost without notice, the Forest Conservation Act, 1980 was enacted. With this even the small benefits the dwellers were able to draw from the depleted forests became unattainable. Worse, whatever developmental works were going on or were planned, got halted as permission had to come from the Government. When innocent tribal people are told that work on small but important facilities like primary school, health-centre, village road etc. cannot be started as approval from the Government was awaited and repeated over and over, the feeling of alienation grows and is exploited by ultras though this realization had begun to down easily in certain sections in the Government. Nothing came of it, not even for creating annual rubber plantations on badly denuded tilla lands.

It was only in January 2008, i.e., after 28 years that these people got justice with the notification of the Scheduled Tribes and other Traditional Forest Dwellers (Recognition of Forest Rights) Act and Rules. The Act has the potential of giving a new lease of life to the most disadvantaged and poorest of poor families living from Leh in J & K to Lohit in Arunachal Pradesh across the Himalayas as also in the tribal belts in the rest of the country, where in many pockets, the deprivation and age-old frustration has also given rise to extremism/naxalism leading to unnecessary loss of precious lives. It has to therefore be appreciated by all right-thinking Indians that the biggest spin-off this legislation could deliver is an abiding peace across the entire country.

For various concerned State Governments as also the historically wronged sections of their populace, the Forest Rights Act presents a great opportunity to redress the wrong and put these people on a path of development, growth and happiness. However, it will be an extremely challenging task for the governments, especially the Departments of Tribal Affairs, Revenue and Forest as also the beneficiaries. It is also important that while no entitled family is left out, only genuine families are vested with forest rights and such families must clearly understand and carry out duties with regard to “strengthening the conservation regime of the forests” (second para of prologue to FRA). Next, but the most significant step would be the role of Panchayati Raj institutions.

Apart from the Scheduled Tribes, “other traditional forest dwellers” are also covered in the Act. They are defined as those who have for at least three generations (75 years) resided in and have depended on the forests for bonafide livelihood needs. Forest rights include occupation for self-cultivation, collection/processing etc. of minor forest produce, conversion of land pattas into titles, intellectual property and traditional knowledge rights, in-situ rehabilitation including alternative land use etc. The traditional right of hunting etc. has been excluded.

A list of 13 items are incorporated in Sub-sec 3 (2) like schools, dispensary/hospital, electric and telecom lines, water supply/pipelines/water harvesting, skill upgradation training centers, roads etc. for which the government would provide for diversion of land subject to some conditions. Chapter III provides for recognition, restoration and vesting of rights and related matters. The next Chapter is about Authorities and Procedures for vesting of forest rights and the details are contained in the Rules notified on January 1 this year. The entire process starts with convening of the meeting of Gram Sabha and constitution by it of Forest Rights Committee which shall prepare a list of claimants of rights containing all details, pass a resolution and after giving opportunity to interested persons and authorities, forward the same to Sub-Divisional Level Committee (SDLC). It will also prepare a resettlement package if required; will form Committees for protection of wild life, forest and bio-diversity. The SDLC to be constituted by the States will be chaired by SDO (representing revenue department also) and have members representing forest and tribal welfare departments and three members from Block/Tehsil level Panchayat to be nominated by District Panchayat. It will arrange to provide all the documents/data, hear and forward the claims with the draft record of proposed forest rights through SDO to the District Level Committee (DLC).

The DLC will be chaired by the DC (head of land revenue in the district) and composed of District Officers from Forest and Tribal Welfare and three members of District Panchayat and will finally approve the claims and issue directions for incorporation of forest rights in relevant government records. States will also constitute a State Level Committee (SLC), chaired by the Chief Secretary, six members representing heads of concerned departments and three ST members of State Tribal Advisory Council (TAC). Where there is no TAC, three ST members nominated by the State Government will monitor the entire process and furnish a six monthly report to the Nodal Agency, viz. the Ministry of Tribal Affairs.

These details needed to be mentioned here as it is necessary for the State Governments at both political and administrative levels, also for Panchayat Institutions and finally for the hitherto deprived but entitled people to appreciate the golden opportunity presented by this Act and to immediately constitute all Committees and make the Gram Sabha and its Forest Right Committee start its work. The pace of implementation would vary from state to state. In states like Mizoram, Arunachal Pradesh etc, which are totally scheduled tribe populated and where there would hardly be any forest dwelling families of 75 years and above vintage, the processing would be simple and quick but the existence of community ownership of land/forests would have to be factored in. The second group of states would be Chattisgarh, Orissa etc. where there are compact tracts predominantly inhabitated by ST but there could be areas of mixed ST and eligible forest dwellers. The process could take some more time there. The third category may be states like Rajasthan, Uttarakhand etc. where the mix is widespread. The sieving and determination of individual families may turn out to be more complicated and time-consuming in these. The acid test for all States would be as to how quickly the process takes off at the Gram Sabha level. Most importantly, what type of leadership is provided at the highest level. The state administration, the Panchayati Raj institutions and the prospective beneficiaries must join forces, move forward speedily and provide forest rights to the wronged poorest of poor people so that they could start life anew and in turn, help bring peace and prosperity to the entire country.

By - N. P. Nawani
*The author has worked as Secretary, Tribal Affairs, Tripura and as Planning Adviser to North-Eastern Council at Shillong. He was Founding Chairman of Public Service Commission of Uttarakhand.

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