The Historic Forest Rights Act, 2006
Passage of The Forest Rights Act, 2006 (Officially known as the Scheduled Tribes and Other Traditional Forest-Dwellers (Recognition of Forest Rights) Act, 2006) was an historic moment for India’s over 80 million tribal population who were forced to live like “encroachers” on their own land, since the British occupiers. It was also a moment of victory for the tribal rights activists across the country. The Act came into force on December 31, 2007. The forest rights act (which is also variously known as Forest Dwellers Act, Forest Tribes Act, Tribal Rights Act) aims to provide a framework which recognizes and vests forest rights in forest-dwelling tribes and foster a new forest conservation regime which almost makes them the caretakers of the local forests.
Roots of Exploitation of Tribal People
The indigenous tribes of India have lived on forest land for ages cultivating and collecting forest produce. However, their traditional rights have never been adequately recognized or recorded and they have been forced to live as under constant fear of the state officials.
This happened because of a series of Indian Forest Acts that were passed from 1876 through 1927 by the British. As occupiers, their primary concern was to generate maximum revenue from natural resources, and gain easy access to timber. Hence the laws were designed to prevent “unauthorized” access of people to forest produce. Of course, it would be foolish to expect them to be concerned about people, their subjects.
This gave birth to the all-powerful forest department and forest officials. They became lords of the jungles with almost absolute authority to arrest, confiscate property, and evict people. This was the British way of the management of forests and natural resources by excluding local people. They started the process of “survey and settlement” involving documentation of the land under the private ownership of individuals and state takeover of the rest of the land and resources. This dealt severe blow to the age-old tradition of managing land and resources largely as common resources belonging to the entire community.
Needless to say, the rights of tribals and forest dwellers were almost never recorded at the time of declaration of either reserved or protected forests, with the result that were reduced to the status of aliens and encroachers on the land they have lived since ancient times and their usual livelihood related activities got criminalized. Thus, the British ended up depriving the native tribes their traditional peaceful lifestyle and the forests resources, their natural traditional caretaker.
The Forest Act of 1927 remained India’s central forest law even after independence (transfer of power from the White-rulers to the Brown-rulers!) and the native tribes remained subordinated to the whims and fancies of the forest authorities. In recent decades, conservationists who want to see forests and its resources separate from the tribal people and corporate houses that eye minerals and other resources of forests, have joined hands with the forest officials. The result has been increasing harassment, forced eviction and untold suffering of the poor forest dwelling tribes, on the one hand and clearing of forests and plunder of forest resources by timber mafia with regular connivance with forest officials, on the other. This situation gave birth to the Naxal Violence in India. By championing the cause of helpless trials they penetrated into their society as their saviors and the Indian government remained a moot spectator. Now the Prime Minister declares it the biggest internal security threat of the country.
Forests are More than Timber and Minerals
An estimated 147 million villagers live in and around forests and another 275 million villagers depend heavily on forests for their livelihoods. In particular, produce from forests such as fuel wood and non-timber forest products (NTFPs) contributes significantly to household subsistence and income for people living in or adjacent to forests. Livelihood security for this segment of the population is critically linked to both ecological security and the security of access to, and control over, natural resources.
Since independence in 1947 well over 60 million people have been displaced by large development projects (such as hydroelectric dams, mines and other industrial projects) and wildlife protected areas. Comprehensive figures for displacement from protected areas are not available; some social activists claim that in the past five years, 300,000 families have been evicted from protected areas alone.
“Life was so beautiful in the forest. No one ever went hungry. The fruits alone sustained us for four months of the year. The forest used to provide us plenty. We also ploughed the land. But they threw us out, and drowned everything. And we are left with nothing.”
- A 55 year old tribal women in Nabarangpur district in Orissa, now forced to work as a stone crusher for survival
The Ancient Tradition of Community Forest Management
Before the British, in most parts of India the land and natural resources were more or less the property of big landlords (zamindars / jagirdars) or local rulers. Putting it simply, they were mainly interested in collecting revenue from these areas and the day-to-day management was largely left to the people who lived in close contact with local natural resources. Their deep cultural and spiritual relationships with the surrounding resources created an intricate system of community based management where private ownership of land was much less important than community use. In fact there were, and still are, many tribal communities, particularly practicing shifting cultivation or hunting gathering, who had nearly no concept of individual land ownership.
Will the Forest Rights Act Restore the Dignity of Poor Tribals?
If one goes by the current status of implementation of the FRA, nothing much has changed on the ground for the poor and unfortunate forest dependent tribes. (Read the detailed PDF report: Appraisal_Forest_Rights_Act_2006)
- The tribal population is still not aware of the specific rights the FRA has given the.
- There are other overlapping laws that negate the spirit and content of FRA.
- There is vehement opposition towards implementation of the Act from the forest department officials who don’t want give their traditional power, the environmental activists who think forests are safer without people (they fail to imagine that humans can live symbiotically with its surroundings), and the Ministry of Environment and Forest (MoEF) cannot tolerate a situation where the poor tribals in Gram Sabhas are allowed to decide the fate of the so-called large “development” projects of the rich corporate houses and MNCs.
The Forest Rights Act may have all the best intentions for protecting the interests of forest dwelling tribes, but in reality its implementation is as superficial, if not worst, as the PESA Act, 1996. In a world where “development” only means increase in the bottom lines of corporate sharks and forcing poor people from rural areas towards cities to become cheap fodder for industry and businesses, the tribal people have to rely on their survival instinct more than the designs of “developed people.”