Saturday, September 29, 2012

Recognising the rights of forest dwellers - A brief look at Forest Rights Act - 2006

According to a latest press release from Ministry of Tribal Affairs, GOI,

"The Act has substantially met this mandate through distribution of 12, 68,766 titles to the eligible claimants under the Act. 2012, further, 14,726 titles were ready for distribution. A total of 27, 73,631 claims have been disposed of (85.90%)."

Before going further, it is important to check what exactly this act means to Forest dwellers. If I can copy government's press release, Forest Rights Act (or rather known by its long name 'The Scheduled Tribes and Other Traditional Forest Dwellers (Recognition of Forest Rights) Act, 2006') was enacted with 'with the objective of remedying the historical injustice done to the forest dwelling Scheduled Tribes and other traditional forest dwellers.'

Right's of Forest dwellers under this act

Let’s take a look at the important rights enshrined in this act for people living in forest areas.

They will have the,
(a) Right to hold and live in the forest land...for habitation or for self-cultivation for livelihood by... forest dwelling Scheduled Tribe or other traditional forest dwellers.
(b) Community rights...
(c) right of ownership, access to collect, use, and dispose of minor forest produce which has been traditionally collected...
(d) Other community rights of uses or entitlements such as fish and other products of water bodies, grazing (both settled or transhumant) and traditional seasonal resource access of nomadic or pastoralist communities.
(e) tenures of habitat and habitation for primitive tribal groups and pre-agricultural communities.
(f) Rights in or over disputed lands under any nomenclature in any State where claims are disputed.
(g) Rights for conversion of Pattas or leases or grants issued...on forest lands to titles.
(h) Rights of settlement and conversion of all forest villages, old habitation, unsurveyed village and other villages in forests, whether recorded, notified or not into revenue villages.
(i) Right to protect, regenerate or conserve or manage any community forest resource which they have been traditionally protecting and conserving for sustainable use.
(j) rights which are recognised under any... law or laws... accepted as rights of tribal’s under any traditional or customary law of the concerned tribes of any State.
(k) Right of access to biodiversity and community right to intellectual property and traditional knowledge related to biodiversity and cultural diversity.
(l) any other traditional right customarily enjoyed by the forest dwelling Scheduled Tribes or other traditional forest dwellers...which are not mentioned in clauses 'a' to 'k' but excluding the traditional right of hunting or trapping or extracting a part of the body of any species of wild animal.
(m) Right to in situ rehabilitation including alternative land in cases where the Scheduled Tribes and other traditional forest dwellers have been illegally evicted or displaced from forest land of any description without receiving their legal entitlement to rehabilitation prior to the 13th day of December, 2005.

Act is sufficiently deep in explaining the rights of forest dwellers to live in their environment. However, rights alone will not do many things as evident from our day to day experiences. In paper we have so many rights but in practical life they are thinner than the paper where it is written.

My five questions

While analysing the rights of forest dwellers to live in their land a number of question are coming up in my mind,
I. Can we talk about conservation of forests and giving forest land for human settlement at the same moment?
II. What about the position of outsiders, won't they be able to grab the land by providing inadequate compensation, from the title owners?
III. How can we assure that the land is going to the proper hands?
IV. What if forest dwellers want to leave nomadic or pastoral life and explore and settle in the outside world?
V. Do we have any proper monitoring mechanism?

Let’s take the questions one by one.

I. Conservation of forests Vs Allocating forest land for human settlement

People, who are living in the forest areas for generations and want to continue there by choice or tradition, have the right to do so (of course with safeguards). We can't pull anybody out of their habitat, even if it is from forest, without a legally valid, morally strong and backed by due process established by the law. If they are not creating any threat to the flora, fauna and wildlife and not engaged in shifting cultivation, killing endanger species then there is no problem in recognising their right to live in the forest.

At the same time this act doesn't ignore the need of communities in the modern era. After all, we can't give land to somebody in the forest and force them to live with Stone Age facilities. Accordingly forest land can be diverted for the purpose of,

"schools, dispensary or hospital, anganwadis, fair price shops, electric and telecommunication lines, tanks and other minor water bodies, drinking water supply and water pipelines, water or rain water harvesting structures, minor irrigation canals, non-conventional source of energy, skill upgradation or vocational training centres, roads and community centres; subject to the condition that,

1. Felling of trees not exceeding seventy-five trees per hectare.
2. Forest land to be less than one hectare in each case.
3. ...shall be subject to the condition that the same is recommended by the Gram Sabha.

Act also establishes a well defined cut off criteria, "for claiming the land is "Scheduled Tribes or tribal communities or other traditional forest dwellers had occupied forest land before the 13th day of December, 2005".

II. Alienation of forest land in the future

In many cases what can happen is, government will give the land to deserved people but outsiders with acquire it from them with or without paying adequate compensation. I think there are enough safe guards added in to this act, "Forest lands thus provided to forest dwelling families, shall be heritable but not alienable or transferable. Title will be "registered jointly in the name of both the spouses in case of married persons and in the name of the single head in the case of a household headed by a single person and in the absence of a direct heir, the heritable right shall pass on to the next-of- kin".

III Allocating the forest land to deserved people?

The question of who deserves what is very much vague here. We can't expect that, lakhs of people living in the forests for centuries will keep certificates issued by governments from time to time (in case such a thing happened). Identifying deserved people is very much important at the same time challenging issue.

Some criteria are already there in the act; but not clear or broad enough to make a distinction. At the same time, considering the efficiency of government bureaucracy possibilities are very much high for its misuse. "The forest rights recognised...the right of land to...forest dwellers who can establish that they were displaced from their dwelling and cultivation without land compensation due to State development interventions, and where the land has not been used for the purpose for which it was acquired within five years of the said acquisition." The phrase is 'establishing', which may prove difficult. But, due to this issue, we should not delay the process.

IV. Exploring the other side

It is quite possible that many forest dwellers may come out of the woods and start living in villages and societies. So what should government do with the land allocated to them which is neither sellable nor transferrable? I believe it will be better, if government can take back the land after providing adequate compensation or allow him to pass it to his immediate relative for a price.

V. Monitoring mechanism

There should be a proper monitoring mechanism, which should make sure that we are on the right track and achieving our objectives. But this should not reduce to the level of micromanagement. Without a monitoring mechanism, the initiative is bound to fail. Currently there are different mechanisms envisioned in the act, starting from Grama Sabha to different committees.

However these are the entities in which we can't completely rely on. Can anybody guarantee that, 'Grama Sabha' will work properly everywhere? In the absence of Grama Sabha there may not be adequate representation from ST communities at the decision making level. I believe a combination of strong Grama Sabha, fully computerised records with proper half/yearly or yearly audits in addition to monitoring committees (if it’s not already implemented) may be prove sufficient.


Data from the ministry of tribal affairs shows that the process is in good shape. But simply interpreting the numbers may deceive us. Hope that we will be able to build a strong natural ecosystem, where humans are a part of it not spectators.



1. Ministry of Tribal Affairs, Government of India

Photo Courtesy: Wikipedia.

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