Indian Forest Act, 1927
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This article is written by Saurav Narayan pursuing LLM from Central University of Punjab. The article has been edited by Smriti Katiyar (Associate, LawSikho).

Introduction

The Forest Rights Act (FRA) of 2006 protects the rights of forest-dwelling tribal groups and other traditional forest dwellers to forest resources, which these communities rely on for a range of purposes, including subsistence, housing, and other socio-cultural requirements. Forest management policies in both colonial and post-colonial India, including Acts, Rules, and Forest Policies of Participatory Forest Management policies, did not recognise the STs’ symbiotic relationship with the forests, reflect on their reliance on the forest as well as their traditional wisdom regarding forest conservation, until the enactment of this Act.

The Act covers individual rights such as self-cultivation and habitat, as well as community rights such as grazing, fishing, and access to water bodies in forests, habitat rights for PVTGs, traditional seasonal resource access for Nomadic and Pastoral communities, biodiversity, community right to intellectual property and traditional knowledge, recognition of traditional customary rights, and the right to protect, regenerate, conserve, or manage natural resources. It also grants rights to the distribution of forest areas for development activities in order to meet the community’s basic infrastructure needs. 

The Act also places a responsibility on the Gram Sabha and right holders to conserve and protect biodiversity, wildlife, forests, adjoining catchment areas, water sources, and other ecologically sensitive areas, as well as to stop any destructive practises that harm these resources or the tribals’ cultural and natural heritage. Under the Act, the Gram Sabha is a highly empowered body that allows the indigenous community to have a decisive say in the development of local policies and initiatives that affect them.

Why is this law required?

The British diverted the nation’s enormous forest wealth to fulfil their economic demands during the colonial era. While legislation such as the Indian Forest Act of 1927 provided for the settlement of rights, they were rarely implemented. As a result, tribal and forest-dwellers, who had previously lived in harmony with forests, began to live in tenurial insecurity instead; a scenario that persisted even after independence as they were marginalised. The National Forest Policy of 1988 recognised the symbiotic link between forests and forest-dwelling inhabitants. The strategy emphasised the need for including tribal people in forest conservation, regeneration, and development. The Scheduled Tribes and Other Traditional Forest Dwellers (Recognition of Forest Rights) Act of 2006 was designed to safeguard marginalised persons and strike a balance between their right to the environment and their right to life and livelihood.

Aim of the Forest Right Act

  • To make up for the past injustices that have been committed against the forest-dwelling communities.
  • To safeguard the forest-dwelling Scheduled Tribes and other traditional forest dwellers’ land tenure, livelihood, and food security.
  • To enhance the forest conservation regime by assigning obligations and authorities to Forest Rights holders for sustainable use, biodiversity protection, and ecological balance.

Forest rights of forest-dwelling scheduled tribes and other traditional forest dwellers

  • Right to hold and live in forest land for habitation or self-cultivation for a living by a member or members of a group. For example, Scheduled Tribes or other people who live in the forests.
  • Community rights, such as nistar, by any name, including those employed in the former Princely States, Zamindari, or similar intermediate regimes.
  • Right of ownership, access to acquire, use, and dispose of minor forest produce collected inside or beyond village limits.
  • Other communal rights of use or entitlements include fish and other aquatic resources, grazing (both settled and transhumant), and nomadic or pastoralist populations’ customary seasonal resource usage.
  • For primitive tribal groups and preagricultural cultures, rights include community tenures of habitat and dwelling.
  • Rights to convert pattas, leases, or grants on forest property provided by any local body or state government to titles.
  • All forest villages, old settlements, unsurveyed villages, and other villages in forests, whether documented, notified, or not, have the right of settlement in revenue villages. 
  • Any community forest resource that has been historically protected and conserved for sustainable use has the right to be protected, regenerated, conserved, or managed.
  • Rights recognised by any State legislation or by the statutes of an Autonomous District Council or Autonomous Regional Council, or rights recognised as tribal rights by any traditional or customary law of the affected tribes of any State.
  • Community right to intellectual property and traditional knowledge connected to biodiversity and cultural variety, as well as access to biodiversity.
  • It allows FDSTs (Forest Dwelling Scheduled Tribes) and OTFDs (Other Traditional Forest Dwellers) the right to possess land cultivated by tribals or forest dwellers up to 4 hectares.
  • No additional lands will be awarded, only land that is currently being farmed by the concerned family.
  • In cases where Scheduled Tribes or other traditional forest dwellers have been illegally evicted or displaced from forest land of any description without receiving their legal entitlement to rehabilitation prior to December 13, 2005, they have the right to in situ rehabilitation, including alternative land.

Who is eligible to claim these rights?

Scheduled Tribes members or communities who predominantly reside in and rely on forests or forest areas for bona fide livelihood needs. It can also be claimed by any member or community that has lived on the forest land for at least three generations (75 years) prior to December 13, 2005, for bona fide livelihood needs. The Gram Sabha has the power to begin the process of deciding the type and scope of Individual Forest Rights (IFR), Community Forest Rights (CFR), or both, that may be granted to FDST and OTFD.

Process 

  • First, the gram sabha (the entire village assembly, not just the gram panchayat) makes a suggestion – for example, who has been cultivating land for how long, what minor forest produce is gathered, and so on. The gram sabha fulfils this purpose since it is a democratic and transparent public body in which everyone participates.
  • The gram sabha’s suggestion passes through two steps of taluka and district screening committees.
  • The ultimate decision is made by the district level committee (see section 6(6)). The Committees are made up of six people: three government officials and three elected officials.
  • Anyone who feels a claim is false can appeal to the Committees at both the taluka and district levels, and if they show their case, the right is refused (sections 6(2) and 6(4)).
  • Land that is once recognised under this act cannot be sold or transferred.

Why is this act full of challenges?

The implementation of the act remains the most difficult task, as environmental activities are not always in compliance with the law, unlawful encroachments have occurred, and claims have been wrongly denied because tribals do not constitute a significant block of voters in most states.  Governments find it convenient to violate this act or ignore it entirely in favour of monetary rewards. 

The forest bureaucracy, both at the central and state levels, as well as huge corporations, have engaged in purposeful destruction. The forest bureaucracy is concerned that it will lose its vast control over land and people, while corporations are concerned that they will lose their low-cost access to precious natural resources. Apart from that,  the Gram Sabha creates rough maps of community and individual claims, but it typically lacks technical know-how and is educationally incompetent. For illiterate tribals, the intensive process of documenting groups’ claims under the Act is both tedious and terrifying.

Conclusion

Even though the implementation of the act remains the most difficult task, the importance of this act cannot be neglected. At the local level, large-scale public awareness and information efforts are necessary, informing both tribe and lower-level officials.

To make it easier for Gram Sabha to identify and file claims for individual and community rights, the appropriate maps and records should be made available to the Forest Rights Committee and claimants. The statute specifies no time restriction for resolving claims, providing clarity on the time limit for settling claims. Both authorities and recipients are generally unaware of this truth in most regions. The government should take a more active role in pressuring states to comply with legislation that has the potential to affect millions of people’s lives.

References

  1. https://tribal.nic.in/FRA.aspx
  2. https://tribal.nic.in/FRA/data/FRARulesBook.pdf
  3. https://www.thehindu.com/sci-tech/energy-and-environment/what-is-forest-rights-act/article26419298.ece
  4. https://www.drishtiias.com/to-the-points/Paper2/forest-rights-act-2006

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