In India millions of people live in and around the forests, but have no legal right to their homes, lands or livelihoods. The power over the forests and its resources vests in the hands of few government officials and as a result there is degradation of forests and exploitation of community forest rights of people. As people are dependent on the forests for their livelihood, when they are restrained from using it, spiteful acts of poaching and illicit felling often takes place.

Areas called as “forests” in India have nothing to do with the actual forest land. The tag of ‘forest’ was put under the Indian Forests Act, 1927 without even surveying the population who lived in these areas or their land and natural resource use pattern. About 82 percent of Madhya Pradesh forest blocks and 40 percent of Orissa’s reserved forests were never surveyed. Similarly until now, 60 percent of India’s national parks have  not completed their process of enquiry and settlement of rights (in some cases even after 25 years, as in Sariska). The Tiger Task Force of the government of India has put it “in the name of conservation”, but what has been carried out is a completely illegal and unconstitutional land acquisition programme.

The victims have been subjected to harassment, evictions, etc. on the pretext of being encroachers in their own homes. Hundreds of villages have been burned to ground, while torture, bonded labor, extortion of money and sexual assault are all extremely common. In the latest national eviction drive from 2002 onwards, more than 3,00,000 families were driven into destitution.

The forest laws in India is designed in a way that it has nothing to do with conservation, rather they were created to serve the British need for timber and in order to exploit the rich timber resources, forests were declared as the state property, overriding the customary rights of dwellers and forest management systems. The forest law suggests that when a land is declared as “forest”, a single official (the Forest Settlement Officer) is suppose to enquire into and “settle” the land and forest rights people had in that area. These all-government officials, unsurprisingly, either did nothing or recorded only the rights of influential communities. The very purpose of the laws was to convert forests into the property of a colonial department. Now, as you convert an ecosystem into someone’s property, there is bound to be stronger claims to that property than conservation.

As a result, more than 90 percent of India’s grasslands have been lost to commercial Forest Department Plantations. Apart from this, around five lakh hectares of forest have been lost in the past five years alone for mines, dams and industrial projects. These bigoted norms caused harm to the forests and forced the dwelling communities to choose between abandoning the forest entirely or living as ‘criminals’ within or near it.

The Forest Rights Act, 2006 seeks to recognize the forest rights and occupational rights of forest dwellers who were previously ignored. These communities were given rights over the forest land resources for bonafide use.

Though this has helped in ameliorating the situation, lately India’s resource governance is again being taken backwards. The government is legitimizing absolute control of the forests, in the name of being industry friendly, to these handful of officials which does not bode well for the environment.

The Indian Forest Act, 1927 created a bureaucrat-controlled and license driven police state that governs India’s forests today. Since, the Forest Rights Act was enforced, state and central governments have systematically tried to bypass it when handing over forest land to corporations.

The Scheduled Tribes and Other Traditional Forest Dwellers (Recognition of Forest Rights) Act, 2006 (henceforth FRA) was enforced in 2007, yet the diversion of forest land for projects continues as rights were not surveyed. The then governing body wanted exemption from FRA compliance, the prospecting for minerals in forest lands which is in direct violation of the FRA but is being done despite being pointed out by the Ministry of Tribal Affairs.

The Ministry of Panchayati Raj issued a circular demanding that States give non-timber forest produce rights to Forest Dept-controlled JFM (Joint Forest Management) Committees which is again a violation as the JFM Committees are Department controlled and hence cannot have forest rights.

The one true reform in forest law in over a century is getting sabotaged in the name of “reforms.” Forest dwellers have always shared use of the forests for many livelihood activities such as collecting non-timber forest produce, grazing cattle, using water, etc. They particularly manage and protect forests together. Hence in the Act these rights are recognized for a group / village rather than for individuals.

This is why forest dwellers are the poorest people in the country and the citizens have lost all access to forest management. Today, planting a tree in a reserved forest is a crime. Nearly a quarter of India’s land (around 23%) and some of its most valuable resources are managed by a closed, bureaucracy. More than 10,000 villages in Orissa and many thousands more across India are protecting forests, but as per law, they are all criminals. It requires the government to record the rights of forest dwelling communities – both tribal and non-tribal. There are provisions with the forest department where they can employ these communities in department silvicultural operations under ‘Taungya cultivation’. It shall generate livelihood options for them and help them attain sustenance. The fact that, on one hand, their presence in forests affects the natural habitat for flora and fauna still exists as interference creates gaps in the bionetwork. But on the other hand, their presence in the forests also makes sure that the power is decentralized and the department alone does not have the authority to set down the fate of forest lands.

By – Rishabh Gangwar



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