Nearly 23% of India’s landscape is forest area and around 200 million citizens are dependent on the forests for their livelihood. The government of India has enacted the Scheduled Tribes and other Forest Dwellers (Recognition of Forest Rights) Act, 2006, (commonly known as Forest Rights Act, 2006) for recognising the rights of individuals as well as communities over forest resources. The Act aims to end historical injustice, which the Scheduled Tribes (STs) and Other Forest Dwellers (OTFDs) have faced during different political regimes.
However, even after 13 years of its enactment, rights of a considerable number of people remain unrecognised and unsettled. The Supreme Court order of February 13, 2019, which asked the States to evict all those whose claim to forest land has not been settled, sets the goal to revisit the challenges of implementation of the Act on the ground.
A Case of Himachal
Going by the Ministry of Tribal Affairs 2018 report, of the total 40.54 lakh claims across the country, only 18.66 lakh have been recognised and settled. However, recognition and settlement of claims are extremely poor in States like Himachal Pradesh (HP), despite the fact that a significant number of STs and OTFDs are dependent on the forest for their livelihood in the State. The total number of claims submitted for recognition of rights under the Act is 2,223, and of that, only 136 claims have been settled so far in HP.
Based on the data retrieved from district offices and discussions with civil society members and local leaders of Sirmour, Chamba and Kinnaur districts, it was found that only 53 Individual Forest Rights (IFRs) claims have been approved in Chamba district so far. In the case of Community Forest Rights (CFRs), the number of claims approved in Chamba and Kinnaur are 18 and 17 respectively. However, no claim, either of IFR or CFR, has been settled in Sirmour district.
An analysis of decisions of the District Level Committee (DLC) and Sub-division Level Committee (SDLC) provides a broader picture to understand the reasons behind the poor implementation. The proceedings of the DLC meeting held on December 15, 2018, regarding 47 claims of IFRs of Lippa village in the Pooh subdivision of Kinnaur district states: “the rights of the villagers of Lippa has been settled vide settlement process of Revenue Department in 1984 and Forest Settlement in 1921. Therefore, in view of above, these 47 petitions are not maintainable”.
Against Forest Act
It is important to reiterate here that the tribal affairs ministry provides clearly that the rights recognised under pre-existing laws need to be recognised in accordance with the FRA. Similarly, the claims are dismissed citing the reason that the claimants have not submitted documents to support that they have been residing there for three generations, even when Section 2 (c) of the Act does not ask for fulfilment of such conditions for the tribal communities since all the applicants in the case are tribal and have already submitted their ST certificate.
The decision of the SDLC meeting on May 14, 2018, for reviewing 419 IFRs and 25 CFRs claims too has not been recommended to the DLC and sent back to the gram sabha citing similar reasons. For example, the proceedings states that “approval of Forest Rights Committee (FRC) has not been taken”, however the claim is only forwarded to the SDLC unless FRC gives the approval. Likewise, proceedings ask for submission of proof that rights seekers are living there for three generations.
Similar decisions were taken in Chamba district too. For instance, the proceeding of the meeting held on December 29, 2018, dismissed the claims of 11 CFRs of the Bhattiyat sub-division on the grounds that rights have been already inscribed in the Naksha-Haq-Bartan (Wajib-Ul-Urz, which is a document of record of rights). In the case of Sirmour, nearly 30 IFRs and 7 CFRs claims were submitted to the SDLC and are still pending with them.
It is discouraging to see that the law department of Himachal Pradesh too has failed in providing conceptual clarity in some instances. For example, it mentions that forest-dwellers primarily need to reside in the forest. However, way back in 2008, the ministry had clarified that “such STs or OTFDs who are not necessarily residing inside the forest but are depending on the forest for their bona fide livelihood need would be covered under the definition of forest dwellings STs and OTFDs”.
This shows how the officials are either neglecting or slowing down the implementation. Overlapping jurisdiction also leads to a multiplicity of interpretations by the public officials in a way which leaves more room for arbitrariness and personal bias. Lack of information about the Act among villagers also discourages them not to contest or challenge the decisions.
A forest official involved in the implementation of the Act said: “Rights need to be recognised and settled if one goes by the Act in toto but being a government official assigned for governing the forest made me to delay or reject the claim as it appears to me that it will destroy the wildlife and biodiversity, and I am the sole person to protect this.” Another public official stated that he is the guardian of the state and his sole duty is to protect the natural resources. However, a retired IAS officer, Ranjit Singh Negi, working on the issue of FRA says that poor implementation of FRA is not just due to deliberate delay by bureaucrats but is also because of lack of political will. He asks for making this issue an important part of mainstream political discourse.
The claimants will have to keep running from pillar to post to get their rights recognised and settled. Unless the government recognises the challenges and takes step for bridging the information gap, sensitises officials and develops a functioning model for processing the claims, there will be poor implementation of the FRA, and ultimately the rights of poor and marginalised socio-economic groups will be violated.
(The author, an independent research consultant, has recently submitted his PhD thesis to the Centre for the Study of Law and Governance, Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi)