The Ministry of Tribal Affairs (MoTA), Government of India, following the Minister for Tribal Affairs, Mr. V. Kishore Chandra Deo’s letter to the chief ministers of 17 states asking for better implementation of the Scheduled Tribes and Other Traditional Forest Dwellers (Recognition of Forest Rights) Act, 2006 (FRA), has set the ball rolling for the long-pending amendments to the act. The FRA was enacted in 2006 to address the sever shortcomings of the 1927 Indian Forest Act (IFA). The IFA resulted in the alienation of tribals and other forest dwellers, including in the ‘Red Corridor’. What are the areas of controversy? What could be amended? What lies ahead procedurally?
The IFA 1927 divided the forest into the Reserved (no human activity allowed) and Protected (controlled human activity allowed) categories. Some felling was allowed in the latter category, but cultivation and livestock grazing were banned in both. This destroyed the traditional way of life. The abolition of the Zamindari system exacerbated the situation as more common lands were nationalized and converted into protected forests. This was later amended and the traditional occupants were given titles based on the length of occupancy. This, however, gave disproportionate power to the Patwaris (keeper of land records), and given the non-existence of ownership records corruption became rampant. The FRA sought to rectify this by providing a clear, transparent and environmentally friendly procedure for the resettlement of displaced wildlife.
However, poor implementation and rampant corruption helped by public ignorance of the act’s provisions has made the FRA equally messy. The MoTA’s proposed amendments – which will be tabled in the parliament during the Monsoon session - seek to streamline the implementation of the act and make the Gram Sabha more important, while taking away some of the powers of the forest officials.
Mr. Deo has flagged some areas of concern and suggested corrective measures. These include better information dissemination about the act to the target group. The Gram Sabha, which is supposed to be a strong entity in implementing the provisions of the FRA, has only been convened at the panchayat and bloc level and not at the level of individual villages, leaving the process open to being tainted by interest groups. Therefore, greater autonomy to the village level Gram Sabhas has been proposed. It is also suggested that videographing Gram Sabha meetings, especially the ones which deal with forest diversions and other important matters, could be considered for better transparency.
Mr Deo has also asked the state chief ministers to take stringent action against state officials, who are involved in the wrongful eviction of tribal and forest dwellers. "Where land rights are recognised the area for which title is issued is often a fraction of the area that the people are actually entitled to. Recognition of community rights, such as right to minor forest produce, grazing areas and water bodies is low," he wrote in the letter.
A major amendment of the FRA and its proper implementation will prevent the harassment of tribals by local forest officials. In the LWE regions, the provisions of the FRA have been misused to file land grabbing cases against the indigenous population. The amendments seek to ensure that the tribals get the actual benefit of the act without being targeted by the state officials.
However, the critics of the FRA termed it an oppressive and dangerous act, which was enacted by the UPA for privatising natural resources and making vote banks out of the forest dwellers.
There are many misconceptions surrounding the act for which it has come under criticism. Many people believe that the FRA is meant to redistribute land up to a maximum ceiling of 4 hectares per person. However, the truth is that this act is not a land redistribution act and does not empower anyone to do so. On the issue of land, the FRA requires the state and central government to legally recognise the lands as revenue lands on which forest dwellers have been carrying out farming prior to 13 December 2005. For non-Scheduled Tribes (STs), this recognition comes after proving that they have been farming on the land in question for the past 75 years. As per the FRA, the traditional forest dwellers and STs will only receive rights to ‘land under their occupation’ and no more, for the time specified up to a maximum of 4 hectares per person. Any claims over the stipulated 4 hectares will not be entertained. No new land distribution will take place and the titles given as per the act cannot be sold or transferred, except through family hierarchy. It is not a welfare scheme and deals with defining the forest land and its occupation.
The FRA, per se, is an outstanding legislation, which if implemented properly can ensure that the space between the government, tribals and forest dwellers is not occupied by any external influences, like the Naxals. However, more than five years after the legislation was enacted, it still leaves a lot to be desired. Whether the proposed recommendations improve the situation or not, only time will tell.