Image credits: Maude Bardet| Flickr

The Indian government’s efforts to maintain ecological balance and environmental stability culminated in the formulation of the National Forest Policy (NFP) in 1952, and in 1988, a new version of the policy came into being. Conserving the natural heritage and protecting the  country’s remaining flora and fauna, among many other issues, formed some of the basic  objectives of the policy. The policy was ambitious in its scope, as it recognized that forest  communities have the ‘first charge’ on forest produce, paving the way for the Forest Rights Act . 

33 years later, the forest rights that the 1988 policy promised for the forests and the communities  that inhabit them have been largely non-existent. At present, there is no clear definition of  ‘forest’ that is accepted nationally. States are left to determine their definition of forests. The Union Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change believes that a clear definition can open up the possibility of loopholes that can further  be exploited.  

Forest Rights Act (FRA) of 2006, a legislation that aimed to do away with colonial-era laws,  recognized the rights of the forest dwellers to manage forest resources, but more than a decade  since its implementation, land encroachment still continues. In 2018, Land Conflict Watch  documented 118 cases of violation and non-implementation of FRA. According to Ministry of Tribal Affairs data, 1.8 million land titles have been given for over 5.7 million hectares of forest land till October 2017. This, however, constitutes only 14% of the total forest land on which  forest dwellers can actually claim their rights. 

It seems that multiple existing laws contradict the FRA, and a change is required either in the  others or in the Act itself. The Act also comes with a number of implementation challenges, as a  large number of claims are being rejected; pending or limited rights are recognized. One can’t also  forget the order by the apex court in 2019 to evict more than a million or 10 lakh tribal and other forest-dwelling households across 16 states in India. If implemented, it would have amounted to  the largest forced eviction in Indian history. However, after the government was cornered by  opposition parties and environmentalists, the court order was ultimately stayed

The central government over the years has been more focused on giving clearances to projects  requiring forest land diversion than recognizing the rights of tribal people and forest dwellers over  forests. In 2019, when the central government unveiled a zero draft of an amendment to the Indian  Forest Act 1927, it failed to ascertain that it was giving ‘more power to the forest department  authorities, including giving them the power to shoot people’, and undermining the  role of forest dwellers. The zero draft was withdrawn shortly by the government. A year before,  Draft NFP of 2018 drew attention for potential violation of indigenous people’s rights. 

The centre’s focus seems to be more on commercial exploitation than safeguarding the interests of  forest dwellers and tribal people. ‘Several government reports over the past five years have pushed  for the involvement of the private sector in managing the forests’. For instance, in  2018, an expert committee report had recommended leasing of wasteland to the corporate sector  for re-greening.  

A sound public policy must not sacrifice the rights of an individual for the interest of many, and  therefore, the government needs to comprehend that measures like these would only turn forests  into an asset for forest officials and private companies and disrupt the lives of many forest and  tribal communities dependent on them. 

The FRA also lacks community forest resources rights. The forest communities and forest  resources are inseparable. The inability of forest communities to enjoy common resource rights  can also be attributed to the tragedy of commons. Multiple users compete for the same resource,  and as a result, there is unregulated use of the resources. It is up to the protectors of the resources to come up with institutions in order to manage them. However, such institutional arrangements either do not exist, or they are simply non-functional. Therefore, there is a need to empower self-government institutions to manage their resources, and at the same time, the community members should also be equipped with necessary knowledge that allows them to enhance their capacities.

The aforementioned examples illustrate that policies related to forests and tribal rights have never  really been concrete. A policy cannot be expected to be progressive just by including terms like  climate change or rights of forest communities; it is not more than a hollow document in that case. There is a need to view the local communities as the actual right holders, not just stakeholders. The  colonial conception that a forest belongs to the forest department or country needs to be done away  with, and a concrete National Forest Policy is required that is relevant.

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The opinions expressed in this essay are those of the authors. They do not purport to reflect the opinions or views of CCS.