2016 saw the completion of the 10th year of the Scheduled Tribes and Other Traditional Forest Dwellers (Recognition of Forest Rights) Act, 2006, commonly known as the Forest Rights Act (FRA). The right promises to safeguard the interests of the tribal communities and give them management and habitat rights over forestlands.
The FRA came under a lot of flak in the recent years for being a ‘misguided piece of legislation’, keeping in mind, its colossal systemic failures and criminalization of the victims while the perpetrators continued destruction of the adivasis’ home and livelihood, all in the name of development. Projects for dams, forest conservation and wildlife conservation like Project Tiger have become ways to evacuate tribals and to tag the remaining persistent ones as encroachers.
In the absence of the land patta proving their ownership, most tribal communities are helpless and the law is not coming to their aid. Gram Sabhas, which would have worked as shields, to protect the tribal land and voiced the interests of the community, often get excluded from the decision-making process itself, like when mining licenses are provided on tribal lands.
The present NDA government wants to further industrial interests but does not want to amend the FRA, which would invite a huge political furor. Hence it is looking for other ways to do away with the consent of the village communities. The FRA is a major jumble of one too many laws and thus impinges the applicability of the other laws like the Forest Conservation Act and the LARR, 2013, entangling the tribal communities in legalese.
FRA also moves away from the basic constitutional principle of right of the individual. It takes rights of the individual tribals and merges them into the community rights of the tribal Gram Sabhas.
Forest officials often view the tribal communities’ involvement as a dilution of their own powers over the forests. Also the Ministry of Tribal Affairs is understaffed and under-resourced in implementing the FRA. There is an implicit attitude that FRA hampers development by not allowing allocation of land for industrial purpose whereas the opposite is true. Lack of understanding on the part of forest officials, on how tribal communities function and conserve resources, adds to the present woes.
Community Forest Rights (CFR) have been more of a joke in India where it’s not about the allocation of forest rights in terms of forestland but the simple reallocation of the village’s agricultural and utility land in the name of the community. A futile activity at the best, such allocations take away a major chunk of the tribals’ forest management rights.
But as if to commemorate the 10th anniversary of the Act, the Baigas in Dindori district of Madhya Pradesh have gained the right to their habitat. This is for the first time habitat rights have been given under the FRA. Habitat rights go beyond the individual and community rights conferred under the Act and encompasses their whole culture and way of life. It is a holistic right to conserve the livelihood of the tribes in the face of a concretized draconian model of forced development.
The Baiga community is one of the 75 PVTGs- Particularly Vulnerable Tribal Groups and as per a new amendment in 2012, all PVTGs were eligible to receive habitat rights. The Baigas worked together with the district administration, forest activists who were concerned about the tiger reserves and mapped out the entire reserves so as to not intrude within the tiger occupied spaces.
India’s tribals deserve protection, but not patronization. The FRA reeks of a poor system of governance of tribal welfare in India, where development of tribal land takes precedence over development of tribal lives. One positive case of rehabilitation in 10 years is just not good enough- neither for the tribes nor for the Indian State.
Swati Sudhakaran is currently pursuing Masters in Public Policy at Mount Carmel College in collaboration with the Takshashila Institution, Bengaluru