Home / Opinion / Weakening livelihood security?

The Scheduled Tribes and Other Traditional Forest Dwellers (Recognition of Forest Rights) Act, commonly known as the forest rights Act, was passed by Parliament in December 2006. It was the third milestone in the rights-based development decade of 2004-14, coming after the Right to Information Act enacted in June 2005 and the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (MGNREGA) that came into being in September 2005. Finalized after extensive public debate (which also saw opposition from conservationists and wildlife champions), the historic forest rights Act assures basic livelihood security to families residing in forest areas for generations. To a large extent, it redresses historical injustices and does away with the inequities perpetrated by architecture of the Indian Forest Act, 1927, which has governed forest administration in the country. When the law was being framed, there was a clear appreciation that it could, to a very large extent, combat the propaganda of the Maoists who have taken advantage of the insensitivity of the local forest bureaucracy to garner support especially among tribal communities.

In the last six years, some 1.5 million families have been given “pattas", that is, ownership rights—and that too written—to the lands they have traditionally been cultivating. Eighty percent of the titles distributed so far are in what are officially categorised as “LWE (left-wing extremism)-affected areas". Of the total titles distributed, about 340,000 are in Odisha, 310,000 in Chhattisgarh, 200,000 in Madhya Pradesh, 170,000 in Andhra Pradesh (undivided), 150,000 in Maharashtra and 120,000 in Tripura, which clearly leads the country in implementation. These titles cover approximately 2.5 million hectares, which is less than 3.5% of the country’s total forest area—by no means a disaster as feared by the forest bureaucracy, which did its best to stymie the passage of the Act and has been largely lukewarm in its enforcement. There were fears that the Act would open the floodgates, but actually the rejection rate of the claims received is over 60% nationally, which itself has come under criticism from a number of social activists active in forest management and tribal welfare issues. Even in Tripura, which has implemented the forest rights Act aggressively, about one-third of the claims have been turned down.

But there are some serious concerns. Some states in which the Act has special relevance such as Jharkhand have a very poor record in granting ownership rights. While the distribution of individual titles has been very substantial, the grant of community rights has been very poor in all states. In all, slightly less than 27,000 community rights have been recognized, of which some 17,500 are in Madhya Pradesh alone. Conversion of forest villages, old habitations and unsurveyed villages into revenue villages is still proving hugely problematic even though the Union government has repeatedly emphasized it. There has been little follow-up to making those given the titles partners in the protection and regeneration of forests. Support for the development of forest lands and community forest resources following the recognition of rights has yet to be forthcoming on the scale needed. It is not entirely clear to what extent the particularly vulnerable tribal groups (PVTGs) have been able to derive the intended benefits from the Act. Civil society organizations have played a key role in ensuring that the Act gets implemented. But the current official atmosphere is decidedly against such organizations. This does put a question mark on how far the Act will continue to be taken seriously.

The forest rights Act got a new dimension in August 2009 when the ministry of environment and forests made it mandatory to settle all ownership rights under it before granting approvals to mining and other projects on forest lands. Now, there is a move to do away with this linkage or dilute it very substantially. Coming in the backdrop of the moves to abandon the provisions of the new 2013 land acquisition law that makes the consent of the gram sabha mandatory for land acquisition in tribal areas, this would be a double disaster. However, the silver lining is the Supreme Court verdict in the Niyamgiri bauxite mining case that clearly established the authority of the gram sabha.

Then there is the important matter of bamboo. In April 2011, Menda Lekha in Gadchiroli district of Maharashtra became the country’s first gram sabha to get complete rights (for cultivation, transit and sale) on bamboo, which is the most remunerative non-timber forest produce. The transformation in that Maoist-affected village has been visibly remarkable epitomised in what Devaji Tofa, a local Gond leader declared: Dilli, Mumbai mein hamari sarkar, Menda Lekha mein ham hi sarkar. The gram sabha’s income from bamboo sales last year crossed a staggering 1 crore. But this truly radical step has not been replicated elsewhere where community rights have been recognized barring a couple of villages in Odisha and Andhra Pradesh. The issue of minor forest produce—ensuring minimum support prices and creating systems for value addition and its plough-back to primary collectors at the very least—is accepted in theory, but needs to be put into practice in order to enhance incomes for those who depend on forests for a living. For these communities, the forest produce is anything but minor, but we cling to this misleading terminology, which has consequences for policy as well.

It is almost impossible to assess what proportion of those who are entitled to livelihood security under the forest rights Act have actually been thus benefited so far. However, what can certainly be said is that after an initial period of foot-dragging, the Act did get to be implemented. But now, it again has entered an era of uncertainty caused by the centre’s determination to give primacy to corporate interests in the name of accelerating growth. This mindset will add to tribal discontent and disconnect.

The author is a former Union minister and Rajya Sabha MP.

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