India’s Approach to Forest Rights Is Exclusionary and Only Benefits Private Capital

Without necessary intervention, India's forest ecosystem faces a bleak future.

During a public meeting of the Adivasi Adhikar Rashtriya Manch held in Telangana in early March, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP)-led central government was accused of delaying and denying forest land rights of nearly 53 lakh Adivasi families. The allegations against the central government included subverting pro-poor policies by opting for subsidy cuts and also catering to corporate interests at the expense of Adivasi settlements. Courts too have shown a disregard for historical rights over forestland: In February 2019, the Supreme Court ordered the eviction of around 10 lakh Adivasi and other forest-dwelling families.    
“Forest rights” in India, both for the forest itself and for the communities that inhabit it, have been largely non-existent. The fate of forests and their ecosystems have historically been at the mercy of capitalist interests, and governments—both colonial and post-independence—have restructured law to suit vested interests. While the current administration has continued with this trend, the callous nature in which natural resources are being extracted and justified for their “development” agenda has been unprecedented. In Jharkhand, the centre is currently looking into the “feasibility” of opening up 43,000 hectares of forestland for iron ore mining. The BJP’s approach to conservation is perhaps best illustrated by Nitin Gadkari’s quote “environment or economy”  when referring to the rising costs involved in building a road around the Pench Tiger Reserve rather than through it.

Further, the BJP’s draft Indian Forest Act, 2019 exemplifies the neo-liberal nature of policy under this government, and also seeks to undermine the Forest Rights Act (FRA), 2006, which was passed by the United Progressive Alliance (UPA) government to confer rights to traditional forest dwellers. As an EPW editorial explains, this act would override the powers of state governments and exacerbate the already-precarious conditions of local forest tribes. Forest officials are to be given quasi-judicial powers in deciding whose claims of land and titles are authentic, and for those perceived to have committed forest-related “crimes,” officials can “shoot, search, seize property, and arrest citizens,” with the burden of evidence on the accused.

It is an understatement to call our forest ecosystems precarious. For one, the extent of the damage is unknown—what classifies as a forest in many states is still unclear, and the government’s data is questionable. This International Day of Forests, we look at previous policy towards forest protection, issues with implementation of policy, and also provide suggestions towards a more sustainable future.       

1) Eco-sensitive Zones and Erroneous Classifications 

Neha Pande and A K Sharma, on surveying the implementation of eco-sensitive zones (ESZs) in the Jim Corbett National park in Uttarakhand, argue that not only is the conception of ESZs ill-conceived—it is an exclusionary mode of conservation that displaces local communities and denies them their livelihoods—but also largely redundant as buffer zones already exist between forests and wildlife sanctuaries and human settlements.  

The villages in this area are of two types—traditional ones and others resettled from the core zone of CNP …  “The Forest Department shifted our village here from the core area, gave us the patta (documents) of the land, but we are still treated like encroachers,” said Kamala Devi, resident of a forest village in the area. The status of forest villages deprives them of any developmental activities. There are no schools, healthcare facilities, electricity and water connection. Also these villagers are denied permission to make pucca houses (permanent concrete structures), claim old dried or felled trees in their courtyard, make fencing around their houses or claim compensation for crop loss as these areas are considered to be forest lands owned by Forest Department.

Moreover, capitalist practices are immune to the ecological fragility of these areas. While locals are made to shift and have their land taken from them, ESZ guidelines do not ban tourism in the ecologically fragile areas. Pande and Sharma write that while the Uttarakhand government claims to support “ecotourism,” ground reports prove that such practices are largely non-existent.

As the pressure of tourism is rising, the government is developing new sites and gateways to the CNP. Initially Dhikala was the only entry gate for the park. However as tourism grew Bijrani zone, Dhela zone, Jhira zone, and Dhangari zone were subsequently opened for tourism. Recently Powalgarh Conservation Reserve has been created in the areas adjoining the village Powalgarh, and is being promoted as a tourist destination …  Time and again, it is only the locals who have been made to sacrifice their rights and privileges, by privileging outside interests.

2) The Fate of Forests under the BJP Government

While the Forest Act, 2006 had its own set of issues, Shankar Gopalakrishnan writes that it saw success in empowering local communities and, more importantly, in making forest areas more “democratic,” in that the locals had rights to their land and there were more checks to resource exploitation. However, Gopalkrishnan writes that the act has been undercut by the BJP by a series of “backdoor” policy changes to dilute the FRA. Looking at the cases in Maharashtra and Madhya Pradesh, Gopalkrishnan says that the forest department has been given more power to claim rights over forestland and private companies can also access forestland. For the BJP regime, the term forest “rights” is absent, both in letter and spirit.

It was only near the end of its term that the government acquired the courage to bring this process of sabotage to the point of destroying the FRA entirely. This was reflected in two developments in 2019. The first was the prolonged silence of the Modi government in a Supreme Court case challenging the Forest Rights Act, which led the court to issue an order which would have resulted in over a million families being evicted (Sethi 2019). The second was the framing of proposed amendments to the Indian Forest Act, 1927 (IFA) which, among other things, would empower forest officials to use firearms and to take away forest rights merely through the payment of monetary compensation (Sethi and Shrivastava 2019). Both of these would essentially destroy the FRA.   

3) The Forest Department and the Implementation of the FRA

Writing in 2016, Muadhusudan Bhani says that forest department officials have been steadfast in their reluctance to implement provisions of the FRA, 2006. The act, passed by the then UPA government, was supposed to rectify the “historical injustices” to tribal victims, but forest officials opposed it on the grounds of the inevitable destruction to forest cover and wildlife. Bhani argues that the opaque nature of the act has allowed forest department officials to reject tribal claims to land on the basis of “insufficient documentation.”

The implementation of FRA has not been effective or delayed, for instance (i) when the claims made by the “other forest dwellers” are numerous; (ii) where the number of claims with the evidence of occupation of land in forest are either recent or after 25 October 1980; (iii) where the demand for claims on the forestland is more than two and half hectares per nuclear family; and (iv) if the claims happen to be in the proximity of wildlife sanctuaries or parks (GoI 2010; Saxena 2010; Sinha 2010; Writ Petition 2011). In this, it presents an underlying pattern of the forest department’s actions in sync with their consistent stance against the provisions like inclusion of “other forest dwellers” as beneficiaries alongside tribals.

Bhani further writes that the only way forward is to have a more open dialogue with department officials, rather than curtailing their powers. Gaps in the act are significant, and amendments need to be introduced to reduce the trust deficit between tribals and officials.

The specific areas that need an urgent examination are: identifying gaps, if any, in the act with respect to conservation of forest resources; review of the public debates around the provisions of the act during the time of the formulation of the bill and the finalisation of the provisions of the act to record if any stakeholder’s inputs were grossly ignored in way to affect any section’s interests; and analyse the patterns of its implementation across regions and identify possible conflicts between bureaucratic and political thinking.

4) Solutions Lie with the Locals

Sharachchandra Lele argues that India’s approach towards forests and ecology remains rooted in colonial constructs—that of revenue generation. Such a stance, argues Lele, is disconnected from such environment’s realities. If effective forest management practices are to be implemented, then local stakeholders need to be at the forefront of such policy decisions. 

Even when Chipko challenged them, the response was to restrict timber-oriented forestry and shift the focus gradually to conservation, without paying attention to local needs or changing the allocation of management rights. This coincided with an increasing attention to wildlife conservation, both nationally and internationally, and led unthinkingly to the formation of wildlife sanctuaries and national parks (that is, protected areas) where local rights were extinguished without due process or thought to the long-term role of those communities in conservation.

For the sustainable use of forests and their conservation to be truly effective, Lele posits that all stakeholders (locals, forest department officials, and government) need to accept the idea of multilayered governance. 

How, then, might the contours of truly democratic multilayered governance look? Some hints are available from the mechanism put in place for claiming the rights, where a three–departmental committee that also contains forest dweller representatives adjudicates all claims. A still better analogue might be the pollution control boards that are mandated to regulate water and air pollution emitted by industries. The boards do not “jointly” manage the industries, nor do they (generally) dictate technologies that industries should use in their production. They do not even set the standards they enforce; the standards are set by the ministries with public consultation. Their primary task is monitoring and enforcement.

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