Forest Rights Act: Why are Chhattisgarh tribals up in arms over non-implementation of legislation, Centre's new conservation policy?
Even a written assurance may not hold good in a region where informed consent is a remote concept and the tribes can be plucked out of the forest and dumped just about anywhere
The march by the Baiga tribe and other forest dwelling communities (between 17 and 19 March in Kawardha district in Chhattisgarh) may not have made it to the front pages of newspapers like the farmers long march in Mumbai recently did. But the issues raised by them are equally pressing, and are centred on securing land rights guaranteed by the law. The tribal farmers marching from Nashik to Mumbai also demanded implementation of the Forest Rights Act (FRA), a short form for the Scheduled Tribes and Other Traditional Forest Dwellers (Recognition of Forest Rights) Act, 2006. The Chhattisgarh tribals too have similar demands as they fear displacement by conservation authorities.
Meanwhile, the act has remained on paper for most part and is opposed by conservationists who fear destruction of forest land and illegal clearing. Many of those who cultivate forest land have been doing so for generations. And in a bid to promote conservation of forests, one cannot ignore the vital aspect of people's involvement. However, between a stubborn forest department and a conservation lobby that has set its face against the act, the forest tribes are in a state of limbo.
The marchers in Chhattisgarh, led by the Gaon Bachao Samiti, also feared the displacement of people due to the creation of a tiger corridor between the Kanha and Achanakmar tiger reserves. Naresh Bunkar who heads the Gaon Bachao Samiti told Firstpost that all the marchers were detained and questioned by the police at Kandawani in Pandhariya block, where the march began. The police and the forest authorities said there was no such tiger corridor proposed in the area and so the purpose of the march was defeated. Bunkar, then asked the authorities to give it in writing that there was no proposed tiger corridor, which the forest official did. However, Bunkar and others demanded that the march was a peaceful protest and should be permitted as it would now focus on other demands for community and individual forest rights, and basic amenities in the 50 odd villages in the forest area of Pandhariya block.
However, even a written assurance may not hold good in a region where informed consent is a remote concept and the tribes can be plucked out of the forest and dumped just about anywhere, as has happened some years ago. In the winter of 2009 the Baiga tribe was suddenly evicted from some villages inside the Achanakmar Tiger Reserve, which has a smattering of tigers, in Mungeli and Bilaspur districts. Although the government did resettle the tribals, the concrete houses for them were built much later only after the cold killed one person.
The resettled tribal people now fear being displaced a second time for a proposed corridor between Achanakmar and Kanha tiger reserves. With little information forthcoming from the forest department, Bunkar and his supporters relied on newspaper reports which spoke of their proposed eviction. However, the fact remains that their rights to land have not been settled and the tribals don't have access to basic amenities like drinking water or electricity in their forest habitat. Their livelihoods are also seriously threatened and they cannot graze cattle anywhere near the forest or even collect forest produce at times.
To create tiger habitats free of human habitation has been a conservation priority since a few decades. In March 2017, the National Tiger Conservation Authority(NTCA) issued a circular to chief wildlife wardens of tiger range states asking them not to settle forest rights in critical tiger habitats, in the absence of guidelines to declare critical wildlife habitats.
In November, 2017, with tribal people facing evictions from core areas of tiger reserves, the international NGO Survival International, which is protesting such displacement, called for a tourist boycott. The NGO, which is a global movement to protect tribal peoples’ rights, urged tourists not to visit tiger reserves until the Indian tiger authority respects tribal peoples' rights to live in and protect their forests.
According to the Union Ministry of Tribal Affairs website, in Chhattisgarh state, till 31 October, 2017, 8,52,530 individual claims were received, of which 3,86,206 titles were distributed. With regard to community forest rights, 27,548 claims were received and 14,161 claims were settled. The number of settled claims is far lower than the applications and many of them are often rejected for being false. However, in many parts of the state and the rest of the country, there is little attempt to settle genuine claims and that is what is causing the recent protests. Thus, the entire process of verification is cumbersome and the fact remains that there are false claims which are rejected. However, the many challenges to the FRA does not mean the substance of the act itself is at fault.
The status report of implementation on the website for the whole country said that of the 40,50,131 individual claims submitted till 31 October, 2017, a total of 17,59,955 were settled. For community rights, of the 1,39,696 claims, 64,316 have been approved till now.
While the FRA implementation remains dismal, the environment ministry has announced a draft forest policy, 2018 to revise the earlier one of 1988. The involvement of people in forest conservation or wildlife management or a policy framework that paves the way for this seems absent or lost in jargon. Already the Centre has drawn flak for the draft rules under the Compensatory Afforestation Fund Act released by the Ministry of Environment, Forests and Climate Change. On 15 March, 66 groups, individuals, researchers and community groups, submitted their objections to the rules and said that the "rightful authority to undertake compensatory afforestation activities on customary forests is not of the forest department but of the gram sabha."
The Centre has been favouring the removal of the gram sabha as a primary decision making authority as mandated under the FRA and this latest move is one more nail in the coffin. Forest rights groups are "opposing the Compensatory Afforestation Fund Act itself as it violates the FRA by transferring compensatory afforestation funds (about Rs 50,000 crores) to the forest bureaucracy for setting up monoculture commercial plantations on customary forests of adivasis and forest-dwelling communities without the free, prior and informed consent of gram sabhas", according to submissions by the Community Forest Rights- Learning & Advocacy (CFR-LA), and All India Forum for Forest Movements (AIFFM).
The FRA, meant to redress a historical injustice to the forest dwellers and tribes, is being emasculated at every stage in the name of discouraging forest encroachment. The future remains bleak for the Baiga and other tribes who will struggle even more for survival.
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