Forest and Tribal Rights
• The bare minimum estimated potential forest area over which Community Forest Resource (CFR) rights can be recognized in India (excluding five north-eastern states and J&K) is approximately 85.6 million acres (i.e. 34.6 million ha).
• The rights of more than 200 million Scheduled Tribes (STs) and Other Traditional Forest Dwellers (OTFDs) in over 170,000 villages are estimated to get recognized under FRA.
• The present report highlights FRA’s potential in transforming forest governance by empowering local communities and the gram sabha to protect and conserve forests; ensuring livelihood security and poverty alleviation; securing gender justice; meeting SDG, especially the goals of eliminating poverty and achieving ecological sustainability; and dealing with climate change. By securing land and resource rights, FRA provides an opportunity to address Left-wing extremism in 106 districts in India’s 10 states.
• The current report says that the Forest Rights Act (FRA) recognizes 14 pre-existing rights of forest dwellers on all categories of forestland, including Protected Areas (PAs). The major rights are: a. Individual Forest Rights (IFRs) and Community Rights (CRs) of use and access to forest land and resources; b. Community Forest Resource (CFR) Rights to use, manage and govern forests within the traditional boundaries of villages; and c. Empowerment of right-holders, and the gram sabha, for the conservation and protection of forests, wildlife and biodiversity, and their natural and cultural heritage (Section 5, FRA).
• There are 75 Particularly Vulnerable Tribal Groups (PVTG) in India, each with a distinct customary territory or habitat. Section 3(1)e of FRA recognizes rights, including community tenures of PVTGs, over their customary habitat and habitation. FRA requires District Level Committee (DLCs) to ensure claiming and recognition of habitat rights of PVTGs by facilitating consultations with traditional leaders and other PVTG members.
• In the last 10 years, only 3 percent of the minimum potential of CFR rights could be achieved.
• The laggard states in terms of implementation of CFR rights (no or extremely poor performance) are Assam, Bihar, Goa, Himachal Pradesh, Tamil Nadu, Uttarakhand, Haryana, Sikkim and Punjab.
• The low performing states in terms of implementation of CFR rights (achieved less than 2 percent of minimum potential) are Rajasthan, West Bengal, Karnataka and Jharkhand.
• The Individual Forest Rights (IFR) focused states have been Tripura and Uttar Pradesh.
• The states, which have implemented Individual Forest Rights (IFRs) and Community Rights (CRs), but have ignored CFRs are Telangana, Andhra Pradesh, Madhya Pradesh and Chhattisgarh.
• The better performing states (in terms of implementing the IFRs and CFR rights) are Maharashtra, Odisha, Kerala and Gujarat (only in Scheduled V areas).
• The present report finds that the reasons for poor implementation of FRA are: a. Absence of political will, both at the national and state levels; b. Lack of effort to build capacity in the Central nodal agency, the Ministry of Tribal Affairs; c. Opposition by Ministry of Environment Forest and Climate Change (MoEFCC) and forest bureaucracy, including by passing the Compensatory Afforestation Fund Act, 2016 (CAFA), support to Joint Forest Management (JFM) and Village Forest Rules (VFRs), constant opposition at the ground level; d. Poor investment in implementation and its monitoring by both Central and state governments.
• The Ministry of Environment Forest and Climate Change (MoEFCC) issued guidelines in August 2015 to lease 40 percent of degraded forests in the country to private companies for afforestation. These guidelines are in complete violation of FRA and completely disregard the fact that most of these forests are either already recognized CFRs, are in the process of being claimed as CFRs, or are potential CFRs to be claimed in future. Maharashtra, Madhya Pradesh and Chhattisgarh have reportedly already initiated reaching arrangements based on guidelines with the industry.
• The recently enacted Compensatory Afforestation Fund Act, 2016 (CAF Act, 2016) has paved the way for releasing around Rs 42,000 crore to the states for carrying out compensatory afforestation, primarily in lieu of diversion of customary forests of STs and OTFDs. The state institutions set up under the CAF Act are dominated by forest bureaucracy with no representation of forest dwellers. The CAF Act also provides incentives to displace forest dwellers from protected areas by making a specific provision for funding relocation. Forest dwellers and Scheduled Tribes (STs) have widely opposed the CAF Act for not requiring consent of the gram sabhas to use their traditional lands and forests for compensatory afforestation.
• Powerful vested interests within bureaucracy and political class have pushed Village Forest Rules (VFRs) as a core strategy to maintain their control over forests, and to forestall transfer of jurisdiction of these forests to gram sabhas. VFRs place the control over management and governance of forests in the hands of committees constituted and controlled by the forest department including in areas where CFRs are to be claimed, have been claimed and titles have been received. Despite strong opposition by gram sabhas, Civil Society Organizations (CSOs) and Ministry of Tribal Affairs (MoTA), the VFRs have been notified but are not applicable in Fifth Schedule areas.
• Joint Forest Management (JFM) is another major instrument forest bureaucracy uses to retain its control over forests and forestall forest jurisdiction transfer to gram sabhas under FRA.
• The Forest development corporations (FDCs), set up since the 1970s, hold about 1.28 million ha of forest land leased to them by the Forest Department. Operation of these leases and granting of new leases to FDCs is causing conflict with CFR rights.