As a New Year gift, the UPA Government notified the long-stalled Forest Rights Act, which gives tribals legal rights over forest land. The notification of the Scheduled Tribes and Other Traditional Forest Dwellers (Recognition of Forest Rights) Act, 2006, (popularly Forest Rights Act) is expected to benefit 10 million forest dwellers across 17 states.
The Act, passed by Parliament in December 2006, has a tumultuous history with forest conservationists and tribal rights activists running high-pitched campaigns against each other. The Act had to get nod from a Joint Parliamentary Committee and later a Group of Ministers before being passed.
How does the Act benefit tribals?
Tribals have been residing in forest land for generations, cultivating and collecting forest produce like firewood and fruits. They, however, do not have a legal document showing that they are owners of the land. Ever since the Forest Conservation Act, these tribals have been seen as encroachers or illegal occupants. After the enactment of the Act, these tribals will now have the legal right to own, collect, use and dispose of minor forest produce. This is expected to undo the historical injustice done to forest-dwelling Scheduled Tribes who were living at the whims of the forest department, so far.
What is the cut-off date for deciding valid claims?
Tribals who have been living in and depending on forests for their livelihood prior to 13 December 2005 or three generation prior to this date will have the right. Each would get ownership of up to four hectares.
Who will call for/verify these claims?
Gram Panchayats will call for claims, which will be examined by Forest Rights Committee consisting of 10-15 members of the Gram Panchayat. At least one-third of these members will be Scheduled Tribe and one-third women. The committee will visit the site and physically verify the nature and extent of the claims. After satisfying itself, it shall forward its recommendations to sub-divisional level committee, which will further send the proposal to the district-level committee for final consideration.
Why are the environmentalists a worried lot?
The ‘tiger lobby’ believes that the only way to save tigers is by emptying their habitat of people (in most cases tribals) residing there. With this Act, it would become impossible to relocate them. Moving speedily, the Union Government demarcated the 28 existing tiger reserves and eight new proposed tiger reserves as ‘critical tiger habitats’, a day ahead of the operationalisation of the Act. It is believed, as a result of this exercise, one million people would be moved out of this critical habitat.
Are the tribal activists satisfied with the present Act?
The major grouse is dilution of the Act by declaring large tracts of forest land as critical habitat. Another is related to making the Gram Sabha unmanageable. According to the Act, the Gram Sabha plays a key role in determining who has rights to which forest resources. However, Rule 3(1) now defines the Gram Sabha as the Gram Sabha of the panchayat, which would include numerous actual villages. This will make democratic functioning impossible (as the number will simply be too large); further, in many areas forest dwellers will be the minority.