SC order on ejecting forest dwellers ignores underbelly of illegalities, subverts Forest Rights Act on massive scale

The Supreme Court has ordered states to act on their own decisions rejecting 1.18 million title claims to forest plots filed by people from the Scheduled Tribes and other traditional forest dwellers. On the face of it, the court order seems unexceptionable: if the title claims have been found to be invalid, the people who are occupying the land must be evicted – by 24 July.

But the findings of the 16 states involved and the consequent court order is the tip of a very complex and, in large swathes, very sordid problem. The United Progressive Alliance government, in its first, “progressive”, avatar, passed the Scheduled Tribes and Other Traditional Forest Dwellers (Recognition of Forest Rights) Act in 2006. The Forest Rights Act was quite sweeping in its effort to give security of tenure and livelihoods to forest-dwelling people.

The Act itself makes the case comprehensively: "… the forest rights on ancestral lands and their habitat were not adequately recognised in the consolidation of State forests during the colonial period as well as in independent India resulting in historical injustice to the forest dwelling Scheduled Tribes and other traditional forest dwellers who are integral to the very survival and sustainability of the forest ecosystem; … it has become necessary to address the long standing insecurity of tenurial and access rights of forest dwelling Scheduled Tribes and other traditional forest dwellers including those who were forced to relocate their dwelling due to State development interventions."

SC order on ejecting forest dwellers ignores underbelly of illegalities, subverts Forest Rights Act on massive scale

Representational image. News18

If the Act is wide-ranging in its scope, it is so for a reason: the need to protect the habitats of people who have been pushed to the margins — geographically, socially and economically — and who now have nowhere left to run. But the rights envisaged for forest-dwellers by the Act came into conflict, from its inception, with two powerful lobbies: wildlife conservationists and developmentalists.

The former filed petitions against the Act arguing, amongst other things, that it went against the grain of a body of existing legislation, including the Wildlife Protection Act, 1972 and the Forest (Conservation) Act of 1980 and that giving rights over forest land to forest dwellers or forest villages in protected wildlife sanctuaries would lead to the degradation of forests and loss of wildlife species.

The development lobby, especially those pushing for the mining and plantation industries and for development projects, including, for example, the building of roads/highways and thermal power stations, decried the Act as being a hurdle to economic growth and the building of infrastructure.

The incontrovertible fact is that over the past few years, the provisions of the Forest Rights Act have been subverted and diluted to allow both the mining and plantation economy to function. Consider this: The Forest Rights Act makes it abundantly clear that: ‘Notwithstanding anything contained in the Forest (Conservation) Act, 1980, the Central Government shall provide for diversion of forest land for the following facilities managed by the Government which involve felling of trees not exceeding seventy-five trees per hectare, namely:- (a) schools; (b) dispensary or hospital; (c) anganwadis; (d) fair price shops; (e) electric and telecommunication lines; (f) tanks and other minor water bodies; (g) drinking water supply and water pipelines; (h) water or rain water harvesting structures; (i) minor irrigation canals; (j) non-conventional source of energy; (k) skill up-gradation or vocational training centers; (l) roads; and (m) community centers: Provided that such diversion of forest land shall be allowed only if, - (i) the forest land to be diverted for the purposes mentioned in this subsection is less than one hectare in each case; and (ii) the clearance of such developmental projects shall be subject to the condition that the same is recommended by the Gram Sabha’ .

This provision is very precise. But the most important part is the last bit: the recommendation of the gram sabha (assembly of all adults of a village), i.e. their informed consent, is necessary for the execution of any development work involving the diversion of forest land for non-forest activities. This provision was also contained in the Panchayats (Extension to Scheduled Areas) Act of 1996, which, too, sought to protect tribal people and their habitats from the indiscriminate depredations of the state and corporations.

The problem is that, as anyone who has even a basic understanding of India’s political economy (or political ecology) would know, the Forest Rights Act is not holding up “development”. Powerful corporate lobbies allied with the bureaucracy and the political class (regardless of party affiliation) are bamboozling forest dwellers and steamrolling the 2006 Act. The evidence is clear and being dished up not by bleeding green hearts or niche environmental groups and publications, but by the mainstream media and advocacy groups as well.

Let’s take the plantation industry. Citing a news item (13 September, 2015), a report for the period 2015-17 by an advocacy group pointed out that the Ministry of Environment, Forests and Climate Change (MoEFCC) had prepared draft guidelines for the participation of the private sector in afforestation. They envisaged opening up about 40 percent of the 69 million hectares of forest cover in the country, classified as ‘degraded forests’, to private industries, through joint agreements between corporations, states and forest departments, arguing that it was imperative to improve and restore landscapes and meet the vital requirement of various forest products for industries. The guidelines aimed to provide 85-90 percent of the leased forests to private industry for plantations. The guidelines suggested there was an urgent need to invite private corporations for improving the quality of “degraded forests”, while suggesting that the fuel wood and grazing requirements of the nearly 300 million forest-dependent people (mainly Scheduled Tribes and other traditional forest-dwellers) were responsible for the “unsustainable exploitation” of natural forests leading to their degradation.

Not only did this line of argument ignore the large swathes of forests diverted for non-forest uses mentioned above, it blamed the forest-dwelling communities for damaging forests. The Forest Rights Act has not only recognized that forest-dwelling communities are integral to the survival and sustainability of forest ecosystems, but it has also mandated the recommendation – informed consent – of gram sabhas for undertaking any development project. The guidelines were against both the spirit and letter of the Forest Rights Act and could, thus, be considered illegal. The MoEFCC should have been taken to court.

Now let us take a look at the mining industry. A story recounted in a publication earlier this year captures the essence of how the mining industry and the state work. In August 2016, the Chhattisgarh government sent a proposal for diverting 31.55 hectares of land for an iron-ore mine to the MoEFCC. One of the papers submitted (dated September 2016) claimed that the village body had approved the diversion and the matter had been settled. In fact, this paper was, in effect, a forgery. The village council had actually rejected the proposal in May 2017. But by then the MoEFCC had already passed the project on the strength of the forged document. This, the report said, was not a one-off incident. Countrywide, a network of researchers has unearthed 38 cases in which forest-dwellers have been protesting such diversion, which affects around a million people and 1,734 acres of land. The consent provision is consistently violated to green-light projects that destroy forests. Rules are also tweaked to circumvent the consent provision and other requirements.

The overall situation is grimmer. Sample these: A newspaper reported last month that in the past three years (2015-18), the government of India has diverted 20,000 hectares of forest land for mining, power plants, dams, roadways and railways, and irrigation projects. That’s an area roughly the size of Kolkata. The statistic was presented to Parliament by the current government. Another set of figures available with the MoEFCC says that since 1980, when the Forest (Conservation) Act was passed, 1.51 million hectares of forest land have been diverted for 27,144 projects. You could argue that all these things are necessary, but so are forests, as carbon sinks and a vital part of the ecosystem, generally speaking, and so, in fact, are the habitats and livelihoods of people who are desperately poor – indigent, in fact.

A periodical specialising in legal news sums up the ways in which the Forest Rights Act has been subverted by a coalition of the forest department, which saw its decades-old fiefdom in danger of disappearing in a puff of smoke, politicians and corporations. There are two ways, it says: First, by direct contravention of the law; and, second, by obstructing or sabotaging implementation. It’s not that difficult to figure out that dirt-poor, disempowered communities are no match for a coalition of such powerful opponents.

Though the pace of circumventing the Forest Rights Act seems to have gathered much greater momentum under the present regime, in which the question of debate and dissent is not in the realm of the possible, the phenomenon dates back to the tenure of the United Progressive Alliance, which passed the Forest Rights Act in the first place, when Environment and Forest Minister Jairam Ramesh’s attempt to enforce the letter of the law provoked concerted opposition from a host of “developmentally minded” ministers.

In the end, we can ponder one thought that is now commonplace in environmental circles: that if you superimpose a map of the poorest regions in the country inhabited mostly by tribal people, on a map of regions most bountifully endowed with natural resources, over yet another map of Maoist-dominated areas, you’ll end up with an uncanny congruence. And even as tribal folk of the country have been looted blind, people wonder why the Maoists enjoy so much traction with them.

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Updated Date: Feb 23, 2019 12:37:47 IST

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