Community Forest Protection in India

I found this illuminating commentary article from The Hindu on community forest rights and their protection in India, in response to the decision of India’s Prime Minister (on June 23) to direct the Ministry of Tribal Affairs (MoTA) to ensure that all States implement the Forest Rights Act (FRA) and grant land rights to tribals over the next two months. In the words of the author:

Mr. Modi’s announcement is welcome, but nevertheless surprising, as his government has come under scathing criticism for removing community consent clauses for land acquisition in the ill-conceived land ordinance bill. …The directive to achieve this historical transformation in the next two months, however, shows a lack of understanding of what the process entails, and the factors that have prevented the proper implementation of the FRA since its passage in 2006.

One, the process of documenting communities’ claims under the FRA is intensive — rough maps of community and individual claims are prepared democratically by Gram Sabhas. These are then verified on the ground with annotated evidence, before being submitted to relevant authorities. The Gram Sabha is treated as a public authority under the FRA, and if the higher authorities under the law reject its claims, substantive reasons have to be provided for doing so. This exhaustive process is why the official diktat to implement the FRA so quickly lacks any understanding about the extent of the task and labour involved.

Second, the main factor inhibiting the FRA’s full implementation is the reluctance of the forest bureaucracy to give up control. The forest bureaucracy has misinterpreted the FRA as an instrument to regularise encroachment. This is seen in its emphasis on recognising individual claims while ignoring collective claims — Community Forest Resource (CFR) rights as promised under the FRA — by tribal communities. To date, the total amount of land where rights have been recognised under the FRA is just 3.13 million hectares, mostly under claims for individual occupancy rights.

Are any network members working on land or forest rights in India? Do you have anything to add to this commentary?

@rachaelknight @jaronvogelsang @manjumenon @kanchikohli - any thoughts on repercussions for potential community land protection work in India?

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@marenabrinkhurst, thanks for sharing this. The announcement is not surprising at all, for a few reasons. The FRA law does not guarantee that the rights (both individual and community) once conferred cannot be acquired. If the rights get listed in revenue records it can attract the provisions of the land acquisition law and if they remain as forest, then then the process under FCA, 1980 steps in. The clauses of the FRA and the environment ministry’s directions clearly indicate that no person can be removed from the land they are occupying “till”, the process under FRA is completed. The PM’s direction to be on campaign mode about the FRA also needs to be viewed in this light. If the “process” and grant of rights is left pending, the controversies around this will also remain so. So the rights are to be “settled” and then acquired. This is even if we spend two years with a gram sabha engaging with a comprehensive process of recognition/vesting of rights. Further, the consent provisions under the FRA is “interpretational” in nature and has been analysed to have relatively feeble legal footing. This has not been publicly stated by anyone for several strategic reasons.

This announcement also came almost exactly at the time when the opposition party announced its visits to parts of central India where the above issue is thriving and has been raised by both the media and CBOs.

Finally, regarding the issue of the reluctance of the forest bureaucracy to give up control. While this is true in many instances, it is not always the case. In fact in some areas where communities have been organised for a while, they do see the individual rights as a matter of regularising occupations termed by governments as encroachments. For them the legal regularisation means recognition of their right to be on that land. Also in a few CFR areas, communities are entering into partnership with the forest departments without any pressure or force.


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