People's Democracy(Weekly Organ of the Communist Party of India (Marxist)
February 04, 2008
Towards Implementation Of
The Forest Rights Act
ON January 1, more than a year after the Act was passed, the union government has finally notified the Rules to provide the procedure for the implementation of the Scheduled Tribes and Other Traditional Forest Dwellers (OTFD) (Recognition of Forest Rights) Act 2006. Without notification of Rules no Act can be implemented. According to parliamentary procedure Rules are normally notified within six months of the adoption of an Act. However recently there are at least three cases where the notification of Rules became as contentious as the Act. In the case of the SEZ Act it was found that the Rules embellished the Act in several ways as for example giving overriding powers to government appointed Development Commissioners. In the case of the anti Domestic Violence Act, the Rules were deliberately delayed for over a year. In the case of the Forest Act too the Rules have been delayed while tribals have faced evictions in several states. Powerful lobbies find space to subvert the will of parliament through either delaying the Rules or framing them in such a manner that they end up virtually rewriting certain sections of the Act by narrowing or expanding the scope.
In the present case, the anti-tribal lobbies among conservationists and the bureaucracy worked to convince the highest echelons of government that notification of the Rules should be delayed until tribals living in critical wild life habitats could be evicted. Such a step would have virtually sabotaged the Act. They continued their disinformation campaign that the Act would destroy the forests when it is well known that the extent of land involved is less than two per cent of forestland. It is only because of persistent pressure that this backroom manouvre did not succeed, including an all party delegation to the prime minister, a walk-out on the issue by the CPI(M) in parliament, a privilege motion against the secretary of the Ministry of Environment and Forests and numerous meetings with concerned authorities and, most importantly, tribal mobilisation.
As was earlier reported in these columns the aim of the delay was to buy time to identify what is termed in the Act as “critical wild life habitats” in all protected areas so that tribals could be evicted from these areas before the Act could come into effect. In fact the Act is very specific in its recognition of forestland rights of tribals and OTFDs in all forests including protected areas prior to any plan for relocation. There is also a detailed road map as to the processes that require to be undertaken before such identification and relocation is undertaken including consultation with gram sabhas, collection of scientific evidence to show that relocation is indeed required etc. There are at least 600 protected areas in the country and if the processes mandated by the Act are to be followed it would take at least one to two years to complete the identification of critical wild life habitats. Because of the intervention of the CPI(M), this plan of bypassing the Act was abandoned. However under the earlier Wild Life Protection laws specifically concerning tiger protection, the MOEF ensured that in the period when the Rules were delayed, the “core areas” in Tiger reserves could be identified. In fact this should not have been done before the implementation of the Act. According to reports the work of identification has been completed in almost all the 36 Tiger Reserves (including 8 approved in principal). There are 273 villages involved which the MOEF wants to relocate. It will be recalled that the relocation “package” till now for a tribal family evicted from forest land has been just one lakh rupees. This had been strongly protested against by CPI(M) in parliament. It is reported that following the protests a new rehabilitation package is being worked out for ten lakh rupees or the equivalent in terms of alternative land. Although this is a big improvement, the issue is whether such relocation is at all required in the first place and secondly, whether the consultation with the tribal families and other villagers concerned has been obtained as mandated by the law. No rehabilitation can take place without such consultation. There are about 50 such villages in Chhattisgarh and others mainly in the states of Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan, Maharashtra and some in Orissa. It will be necessary to ensure contacts with the villagers in the identified core areas to ensure that their rights are protected.
In the Rules finally notified there are many gaps and weaknesses of which five are of particular concern. The first is a strange definition of “bonafide livelihood needs’ that seeks to dilute the unambiguous rights to eligible beneficiaries given by the Act in access to minor forest produce; the second is the absence of a clarification that those who reside outside (around the forests) but are dependant on forests are also eligible, which is mentioned in the Act through the words “primarily reside in forests”; the third is an ominous inclusion of “State agencies” in the list of aggrieved parties who can appeal against the decision of a gram sabha; the fourth is an insistence on an unrealistically high quorum in the Gram Sabha and the fifth is the exclusion of some of the important assurances given by the minister on the floor of parliament which were to be included in the Rules such as “fuelwood” and “stones” in the list of minor forest produce, recognition of the rights of those already settled by government on forestland. There will be occasion for these issues and others to be raised to correct the Rules.
However for now, every effort and all energy must be directed to ensure speedy implementation. The central and state governments are now bound by law to immediately stop all evictions of tribals and other traditional forest dwellers from their lands. Party units in some states like Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan, Jharkhand and Maharashtra have reported evictions. In some cases the forest department has dug pits on tribal land claiming the land even though it has been in the possession of tribals for decades. These wrongful acts can now be reversed using the provisions of the law.
The steps immediately required are: (1) The verification procedures must be put in place without any further delay. Party state committees and those of mass organisations can go to the relevant state authorities and demand that the process of calling gram sabhas in the relevant areas in the state should be done without delay. It is necessary for all state governments to initiate the process. According to the Act further elaborated by the Rules these Gram Sabhas (which according to the definition in the Act includes tolas or padas), will elect a Forest Rights Committee which will act on its behalf to process the claims to land by eligible beneficiaries. At least one third of the committee members must be tribal. However wherever our mass organisations are working we must ensure that maximum numbers of tribals are included in the committees. (2) A claimant must submit the claim to the Forest Committee. Details required are given in the accompanying box. It is necessary in the different states to print the forms and distribute it to the beneficiaries to help them access their rights without delay. It is also necessary to help define the boundaries of the land. The claimant needs to produce “more than one” out of a list of nine eligible evidences such as “statements of elders of the village reduced in writing”, or “any government authorised document such as voter cards, ration cards”, , or “physical attributes such as huts, houses, improvements made to land etc”. Evidence for community forest rights have also been listed. We must help also in the collection of evidence (3) The forest departments must also be instructed to implement the law regarding rights to minor forest produce. Tribal women in particular face daily harassment by forest guards in the collection of minor forest produce. For example it was reported before the Joint Parliamentary Committee that in Orissa alone there are as many as 11,000 cases pending in the courts against tribals for the “crime” of collecting forest produce the value of which is less than 100 rupees. All such cases must be withdrawn not only in Orissa but in other states also where such cases have been filed and the law granting rights to tribals and OTFD should be implemented. (3) Tribal women have special benefits under the Act since all land pattas have to in the name of both spouses. Special campaigns informing eligible forest dwellers eligible of their rights is essential. We can begin by giving printed copies of the Act and the Rules to all those activists with the responsibility in the relevant areas to enable them to understand the rights and the procedures to be followed. (4) Through our contacts with eligible beneficiaries we must ensure that the forest land, timber and mining mafias are isolated and their attempts to use tribals as pawns in their efforts to capture forestland are thwarted.
The Act is a significant step forward in addressing the historical injustices faced by tribal communities and other traditional forest dwellers. The CPI(M) has played a significant role in getting the Act and Rules enacted. It must now take the initiative to ensure that the Act is implemented.
DETAILS REQUIRED FOR LAND CLAIM
FORM-A CLAIM FORM FOR RIGHTS TO FOREST LAND
1.Name of the claimant (s)
2. Name of the spouse
3.Name of the father/mother
9.Scheduled Tribe: Yes/No
(attach authenticated copy of certificate)
(b) Other Traditional Forest dweller Yes/No
If a spouse is scheduled tribe (attach authenticated certificate)
10. Name of other members in the family with age (including children and adult dependants)
NATURE OF CLAIM ON LAND
1.Extent of forest land occupied a) for habitation b) for self cultivation, if any
See Section 3 (1) (a) of the Act
2. Disputed lands if any(see section 3 (1)(f) of the Act
3.Pattas, leases, grants, if any Sec 3(1)(g) of the Act
4.Land for in situ rehabilitation or alternative land if any (Sec 3 (1)(m)
5.Land from where displaced without compensation (Sec 4(8))
6.Extent of land in forest villages if any: (Sec. 3(1)h of the Act
7.Any other traditional right, if any (Sec. 3(1)(1)
8. Evidence in support (Rule 13)
9. Any other information