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Forest Rights Act 2006: how the recent policy interventions are helping salvage a badly drafted law?

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In early March this year some tribal farmers from north Maharashtra region took out a long-march from Nasik to Mumbai, demanding among other things, the expeditious transfer of forest land rights to them as promised under Forest Rights Act 2006 [1]. Ever since the long-march started, the political overtone was very evident but even then, accepting their demands with an open mind, Maharashtra CM proposed to set up a committee to look into land rights claims related issues and ensure hand over of ownership of land, currently notified as forests, to tribal (Adivasi) farmers tilling them. It was one of the primary demands of the farmers and tribal who participated in ‘long march’.

FRA being in place for 10 years now and for the large part of its life, the party which championed it in the parliament, being in power at the center, one would think that the substantial part of benefits delivery under the act would be a done deal. But clearly, the long march said something different. In a way, it was an acknowledgment by the parties which brought this act in first place of their failure to implement it in an effective manner and pass on the benefits to the intended beneficiaries.

In February 2004, just before the parliamentary elections, Vajpayee Govt’s Ministry of Environment & Forest (MoEF) gave a major impetus to the process of handing over forest rights to tribals by issuing two circulars: one titled ‘Regularization of the rights of the tribals on the forest lands’ that extended the cut-off date for regularization for tribals to December 1993 (from October 1980 under the first 1990 circular) and the other titled ‘Stepping up of process for conversion of forest villages into revenue villages’. Subsequently, UPA came to power and built on top of it by way of bringing in the act called ‘Scheduled Tribes and Other Traditional Forest Dwellers (Recognition of Forest Rights)’ act [2]. The rules for the implementation of the act were notified from 1st Jan 2008 and the act came to be known as Right to Forest Act 2006 (RFA).

As per UPA, the law was needed to redress the “historical injustice” committed against forest dwellers, while including provisions for making conservation more effective and more transparent. The law was meant to recognize and vest individual forest-dwellers with forest rights to live in and cultivate forest land that these communities (scheduled tribes primarily) were cultivating /occupying and using forest produce since ages.

In summary, RFA in its original avatar set out to achieve three key objectives [2] stated below:

(a) to empower and strengthen local self-governance. Towards this, the act envisioned a three-tier quasi-judicial system of authority for verifying and adjudicating the claims with an empowered Gram Sabha being the first level of adjudication to decide of forest land claims by the inhibiting tribal communities
(b) to address the livelihood security of the people, leading to poverty alleviation and pro-poor growth. The act set out to achieve this by granting forest land as well as minor forest produce (MFP) rights to the tribals.
(c) to address the issue of conservation and management of natural resources and conservation

If one looks at the data [4], it is evident that the implementation has been uneven across the states. However, there are some common issues that have been observed which have really made the implementation of RFA very ineffective. These pertain to rejection of a large number of claims at Sub Divisional Level Committees (SDLCs) and District Level Committees (DLCs) levels, tensions between forest departments and tribals pertaining to their rights, lack of end of end value chain for MFPs leading to minimal benefits to the tribals in terms of improving their incomes etc.

Clearly, the act has failed to deliver on its promise, what next? Is there a way to amend it and address lacunae that are there to make it more effective?. Ideally this would have been the preferred way but the govt seems to have chosen the path of least resistance by way of building a web of supplementary policy interventions around RFA legislation. Let’s take a closer look at the policy interventions by the current dispensations in the center as well as the states aimed at ameliorating the act and aligning it to key stakeholder’s expectations.

Interventions to empower local self-governance and improved forest governance

Here the real issue is that of forest governance in India which is swinging between centralized forest management to de-centralized/participatory model to a devolution model of forest governance now under RFA. Having toed different governance models ranging from Van-Panchayats to Joint Forest Management to Gram Sabha led management, this issue remains central to the success of RFA. PESA (Panchayats (Extension to Scheduled Areas) Act 1996) has also had its share of influence on the forest governance

There is a growing realization amongst the experts that the multi-stakeholder ecosystem of forests like in India requires a multilayered governance framework in which the regulatory, funding and operational roles are separated and democratized [5]. The RFA in its original form appears to have taken a lop-sided view of the forest governance leaning heavily in favor of Gram Sabhas and cutting out other stakeholders with knowledge and competence of forest management from the equation. This has created tension and confusion between newly “empowered” Gram Sabhas and the other stakeholders notably the forest departments undermining the smoother implementation of the act.

National Forest Policy 2018 tries to address this lacuna in RFA by proposing a parallel community forest management arrangement along the lines of joint forest management [6]. The draft National Forest Policy 2018 also underlines a need to further strengthen participatory approach by way of proposing to set up a National Community Forest Management (CFM) Mission. NFP proposes the mission to have a legal basis and an enabling operational framework and ensures efforts to create synergy between Gram Sabha & Joint Forest Management Committees (JFMCs) for successful community participation in forest management.

Interventions to help tribals improve their livelihood and incomes from forest produce

It became amply clear from the initial implementation audits itself that RFA—though a step in the right direction so far as vesting forest rights with the tribals goes—hasn’t proven itself to be particularly effective in addressing the livelihood issues of the Adivasis. Firstly because of the flawed 3-tier adjudication model that this act proposed where ill-trained, ill-equipped and political vulnerable Gram Sabhas/Forest Rights Committees (FRCs) were designated as the competent authority to adjudicate the claims at the first level. Robust institutional mechanisms to address issues (such as conflict of interest by Gram Sabhas, conflict resolution, coercion especially in Naxal infested areas and allurements from foreign-backed green NGOs and religious organizations with vested interests) pertaining to granting of individual forest rights(IFR) and community forest rights (CFR) were left unaddressed.

This has resulted in a very skewed metric at the ground level with a significantly higher rate of acceptance at the Gram Sabha level and a higher rate of rejections at Sub Divisional Level Committees (SDLCs) and District Level Committees (DLCs). The claims at SDLC and DLC level are normally expected to be evaluated in an objective manner as per the rules notified in the law. The current rejection rate in Maharashtra is @36% [8] which is lower than the rejection rates prevailing in other states like Kerala, West Bengal etc.

To address this issue of high rejections, the tribal department of Maharashtra govt in March 2018 has tasked field officers from 16 tribal dominated districts to prepare an action plan in the next three months for the settlement of 1,06,000 individual claims made by tribals for the transfer of forest land. Further, the tribal development department has started to leverage Google Mapping of land where individual claims were rejected in the past. The very fact that a special committee outside the governance structure suggested by the act had to be set up by the state govt alludes to the failure of institutional mechanism suggested in the act.

A superficial view of forest produces value chain appears to have resulted in no concrete remedial and actionable policy measures being prescribed in the act, which otherwise could have immensely benefited the tribals. The act mandates Gram Sabhas to be the sole ‘competent authority’ to decide on matters of MFP, cutting out other key stakeholders notably the forest departments, state tribal departments with deeper knowledge and capabilities from having any say in forest produce management. This lack of know-how & professional competence on part of Gram Sabhas for developing the value chains and effective market linkage mechanism for Minor Forest Produce (MFP) has resulted in very limited income growth opportunities for tribals.

The Ministry of Tribal affairs’ ‘Van Dhan Vikas Kendra’ scheme (a pilot has been established in Bijapur district of Chhattisgarh) for providing skill up-gradation and capacity building training and setting up of primary processing and value addition facility for MFP is a path-breaking intervention not only from the point of view of providing subsistence to tribals during lean season but also for women’s financial empowerment as most of the MFPs are collected and used/sold by women. MFP sector has the potential to create about 10 million workdays annually in the country [7]

Interventions to address concerns about forest/environment impacts due to FRA and effective management of natural resources

Right since its inception, the environmentalists across the board have been voicing their deep concerns about the likely damage the RFA would cause to the forest ecology. The concerns primarily were around the loss of green cover due to the vesting of land rights to forest dwellers, who the environmentalists feared would use it for farming and other such purposes by removing the forest trees. Their fears about loss of forest cover have in fact been corroborated by a High-Level Committee that was set up in 2014 [8] to review various Environment acts, which observed that quality of forest cover has declined between 1951 and 2014, with poor quality of compensatory afforestation plantations being one of the reasons behind the decline.

Compensatory Afforestation Fund Act which was enacted in 2015 sought to address these concerns [9]. This act mandated the funds to be primarily spent on afforestation to compensate for the loss of forest cover, regeneration of forest ecosystem, wildlife protection, and infrastructure development. The act also establishes the National and State Compensatory Afforestation Fund Management and Planning Authorities to manage the National and State Funds. More than Rs. 50,000 crores collected from users of forest lands for development projects have been allocated for plantations to replace forests lost due to a variety of reasons including RFA.

In another supplementary policy intervention, recently the government has merged National Mission for Green India–which aims afforestation at 10 million hectares of land over the next decade–with MGNREGA with an objective to increase and improve the country’s forest cover [10].

In summary, with these recent interventions, an attempt has been made to get an erstwhile ineffective and a badly drafted piece of legislation that RFA has come to be known as back on track. These interventions will go a long way to restore the balance between the need for tribal welfare and forest & environment conservation. Most importantly, in days to come these interventions should see improved outcomes in terms of the right to forest land and forest produce for the forest-dwelling tribals and hopefully they wouldn’t need to toil in long-marches demanding effective and efficient implementation of the act

References:

[1] Tribal long march http://www.newindianexpress.com/nation/2018/mar/13/maharashtra-government-accepts-farmers-demands-kisan-long-march-ends-1786259.html
[2] Scheduled Tribes and Other Traditional Forest Dwellers (Recognition of Forest Rights)’ act https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Scheduled_Tribes_and_Other_Traditional_Forest_Dwellers_(Recognition_of_Forest_Rights)_Act,_2006
[3] The Scheduled Tribes and other traditional forest dwellers (Recognition of forest rights) Act, 2006
[4] Uneven implementation of FRA www//fra.org.in
[5] Democratizing Forest Governance in India, book edited by Sharachchandra Lele and Ajit Menon
[6] Draft National Forest Policy 2018 http://www.moef.nic.in/sites/default/files/Draft%20National%20Forest%20Policy%2C%202018.pdf
[7] Van Dhan Vikas Kendra http://pib.nic.in/PressReleaseIframePage.aspx?PRID=1528048
[8] High-level committee to review environmental laws http://envfor.nic.in/sites/default/files/press-releases/Final_Report_of_HLC.pdf
[9] Compensatory Afforestation Act http://www.prsindia.org/billtrack/the-compensatory-afforestations-fund-bill-2015-3782/
[10] National Green Mission merged with MNGRES http://www.moef.nic.in/sites/default/files/MGNREGS-GIM.pdf

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