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Revive the Forest Act

Revive the Forest Act

The Act has so far failed to provide relief to forest dwellers due to weak implementation

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Last Updated : 13 May 2024, 20:12 IST
Last Updated : 13 May 2024, 20:12 IST
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The Scheduled Tribes and Other Traditional Forest Dwellers (Recognition of Forest Rights) Act, 2006, commonly referred to as the Forest Rights Act, 2006 (FRA), is landmark legislation aimed at recognising the rights of forest dependent people (FDP). The Act emerged in response to nation-wide agitations against the 2002 eviction orders targeting tribals in Assam, Madhya Pradesh, and Maharashtra, aimed at removing them from their ancestral habitats. 

Initially, the FRA raised expectations of securing the rightful claims of the FDP. However, its implementation over the years has failed to meet these expectations. A recent study by Call for Justice, an organisation based in Delhi, highlights recurrent irregularities in its implementation. The study, led by an 8-member committee chaired by retired Delhi High Court Judge S N  Dhingra, was conducted in Assam, Chhattisgarh, Maharashtra, Odisha, and Karnataka. 

In Assam, the team examined two districts—Dima Hasao and Hailakandi—and found that the FRA failed to recognise the practice of shifting cultivation (slashing and burning plants), which is integral to the ecological and cultural needs of indigenous people in these districts. The report pointed to an urgent need to de-bureaucratize the forest rights recognition process in these districts. Similarly, in Chhattisgarh, the study revealed that gram sabha recommendations had been pending at the sub-divisional level for nearly seven years, significantly delaying the decision-making process for forest dwellers. 

In Maharashtra, the implementation was satisfactory in Gadchiroli but lacking in Nashik. In Odisha, while assessments in Kandhamal and Sundargarh districts showed substantial improvements, a significant gap existed between individual forest rights (IFR) and community forest rights (CFR) claims submitted and ultimately recognised. The absence of time frames for acting on gram sabha recommendations was found to be yet another cause for delayed enforcement. In Karnataka, the recognition of IFR claims was particularly poor in the two districts surveyed (Ramnagara and Mysuru), and a meagre 5.17% of the IFR claims were recognised, making it the worst performing among the states surveyed. 

A much-needed reform

The findings clearly underscore the urgent need for reforms within the existing framework of the FRA. Although the Act has been instrumental in securing the rights of hundreds of people, it has yet to address the historical injustices meted out to forest dwellers for centuries. It is mired with multiple lacunae, which hinder its effective implementation. For instance, a common issue was observed in Chhattisgarh and Odisha, where the recommendations of the gram sabha had been pending before sub-divisional committees for years. A simple amendment stipulating a time frame for disposal of claims by the gram sabha and appellate authorities would be adequate to obviate such inordinate delays in recognising forest rights. Considering that at present more than nine lakh claims are pending at various levels across the country, it becomes imperative to fix a time limit for the disposal of claims by these authorities. 

The findings from Assam point to another crucial aspect that is frequently overlooked by forest department officials: that a universal approach to implementation is neither feasible nor desirable in a country as diverse as India. Region-specific practices, customs, and ecology must all be taken into account for efficacious enforcement of the FRA. Practices like slash and burn, employed in certain districts of Assam, may seem prima facie unsustainable, but because of their ecological suitability and cultural significance, such practices must be given recognition under the Act. 

Another major concern is the lack of awareness among FDPs of their rights under this Act. Most forest dwellers are non-literate tribals who are not even aware of the existence of the FRA. Therefore, the State must take initiatives to spread awareness about the rights guaranteed under the Act. Along with forest dwellers, insouciant bureaucrats who routinely reject forest rights claims at the slightest of irregularities must also be sensitised to the benevolent intentions of the legislature behind this legislation. 

The government must act swiftly to take stock of the unsatisfactory implementation of the Act in different parts of the country. Though the enforcement in different states varies considerably, the issues stem from identical institutional flaws inherent in the legislation itself. The FRA is a milestone piece of legislation in the struggle of forest dwellers to claim their rights. Ever since the colonial ages, they have been the subject of much exploitation—then at the hands of their colonisers, and now at the hands of forest department officials. It is long overdue that their struggles be finally put to an end. The FRA can be the most instrumental tool in realising this age-old aspiration.

(The writer is a student at the National Law University, Jodhpur.)

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