After over a year’s prodding by the Sonia Gandhi-led National Advisory Council, or NAC, the government has altered the rules framed under its flagship tribal welfare legislation, the Forest Rights Act (FRA). The NAC’s intent was to effectively protect the livelihood security of forest-dependent communities; however, some of the changes may actually exacerbate the already simmering conflict between the FRA and laws meant to protect India’s forest and wildlife. The FRA, enacted in 2006, seeks to assure the right of traditional forest dwellers, largely tribals, to use minor forest produce for their subsistence. It gives village assemblies – Gram Sabhas – a major say in forest management matters; unsurprisingly, central and state forest departments have disapproved.
What particularly dismayed both the forest department and wildlife activists are provisions that barred the relocation of forest dwellers even from wildlife sanctuaries, bestowing on them the unbridled right to access forest produce. Such produce, including bamboo, tamarind and tendu leaves, are a Rs 4,000-crore business — and a key revenue source for forest departments. Conservationists view the statute as a threat to wildlife and habitat protection, especially in national parks and tiger reserves. The first set of rules framed under the FRA and notified in 2008 sensibly kept these concerns in mind. One of the aspects of the law that has been exploited by the forest departments to their advantage is that the Act, even while recognising the forest communities’ right to occupy forest land and access its produce, does not specify the procedures to claim these rights. The guidelines for implementing the law were framed so as to not question the right of forest dwellers to collect minor produce, but they were constrained to transport it out of the forests manually. Moreover, though the FRA in its present form is generally thought of as a land patta (ownership rights) distribution legislation, data suggest that it has been ineffective in doing that. Over half the claims made by the tribals for obtaining pattas for land they claim they traditionally held have been rejected. What is worse, most rejections have been in the nine forested states where the Maoist insurgency is the strongest.
There is little doubt that legislation central to assuring the rights and livelihood of the country’s 85 million tribals – over half of whom live in abject poverty – should be better administered. However, the new rules swing the pendulum to the other extreme. Apart from making translocation of forest dwellers difficult and permitting transportation of minor produce out of forested areas, the proposed norms enhance the role of Gram Sabhas in managing the forests. This will create severe problems when it comes to maintaining India’s vital forest cover and protecting wildlife habitats. India’s sharply declining forests cannot be taken for granted; the rules must be revisited so that a proper balance is maintained between livelihood and environmental protection.