The recent controversy over the eviction of one million forest dwellers due to rejection of their claims under the Forest Rights Act (FRA) has subsided as the Supreme Court issued a stay on implementing its own order. The main issue is whether issuing title deeds to tribals who have lived in the forests for generations would lead to forest destruction or conservation?
The FRA passed by the Lok Sabha in 2006 has two basic components. A tribal family can claim Individual Forest Rights (IFR) for the land they have been cultivating for generations. Additionally, the Act specifically mentions Community Forest Rights (CFR), allowing the tribal communities to use and manage forest resources to achieve the objectives of conservation and regeneration.
Unfortunately, the entire focus is on settling the IFR claims, its rejection and failure by the state government in implementing the FRA. Though it is very critical that the historical injustice caused to tribals is resolved by giving individual titles of land ownership, it is essential that these communities have rights over larger areas of forests from where they collect forest produce for their livelihood.
Traditionally, the tribal societies evolved through community ownership of resources, especially land and forests. For them, the value of community assets is more crucial for survival as they are engaged in communal action to collect forest produce, catch fish in the river or graze their animals in the forest. Thus, more than individual rights, the rights over community-managed forest resources, rivers and grazing land becomes more important for day-to-day survival.
Ignoring this basic factor, politicians are in favour of IFR as individual claims, allocating of title deeds brings them political dividend. Nevertheless, there are numerous success stories of how CFR implementation has led to empowering of tribals and helped conserve forest resources.
The best example is in Biligiri Rangaswamy Tiger Reserve (BRT) in Karnataka. About 30 CFR titles have been given to Soliga community allowing them to collect forest produce, honey and perform rituals in the ancestral sites. Dr Made Gowda, the tribal leader of the Soliga community says, “We had to struggle for years to get both individual forest rights and community forest rights. With CFR, our livelihood security is secured as it provides employment and income for survival”.
Obviously, it has been a long struggle to claim community rights over large tracts of forest resources. This was possible only due to the support of civil society organisations and community spirit of the Soligas, who fought relentlessly over decades with forest bureaucracy to allocate the CFR title deeds. The proactive role played by political parties did play a major role.
The BRT example is historic in many respects as the tiger reserve is the only protected area where the CFR is given under FRA. This region is a model of coexistence as the number of tigers have increased over the years with conservation of natural forests, with Soliga tribes living in midst of the tiger reserve.
Similarly, in Mendha Lekha village in Gadchiroli district in Maharasthra, the CFR titles given have led to sustainable harvesting of bamboo and ecological improvement of soil and water resources that have resulted in increase of forest cover. These success stories of effective implementation of FRA by providing CFR bust the myth that allocating titles under FRA will lead to the destruction of forests.
In order to harness votes, the political parties and their leaders are enticing people to encroach forest land with an assurance of individual titles. This has definitely led to the destruction of forests. However, this is not in the true spirit of FRA, but of its misuse and wrong interpretation with the intention of illegal occupation of forest land. With modern technologies of satellite mapping, these unscrupulous elements can be weeded out and genuine cases can be given titles.
The provision of both IFR and CFR empowers the right over the resources that need to be managed, which essentially means that the government has to take permission of the Gram Sabha in their region for any projects that require forest land. Ironically, the present NDA government issued a circular that this permission is not necessary. This regressive policy is against the true spirit of FRA that empowers the tribal communities.
The existence of FRA for over a decade has shown that successive governments are least interested in implementing the basic tenets of the Act. They are neither interested in providing justice to tribals and forest dwellers nor they are interested in protecting forests.
The need of the hour is to implement FRA allowing CFR over forests that can be managed locally. This can be a win-win situation where the community and forests both benefit with enhanced natural assets that provide ecological and economic security for the present and future generations.