With a strong community forest management network in place, one would think that forest-dependent communities in Orissa would be upbeat about the Forest Rights Act. But even as people’s movements begin to use the Act as a weapon in their struggle, most communities are confused about the scope of the Act and the processes to be used to file community claims to forests
On December 18, 2006, the upper house of the Indian Parliament passed an ‘historic Bill’ relating to India’s forests -- the Scheduled Tribes and Other Traditional Forest-Dwellers (Recognition of Forest Rights) Bill 2006, generally referred to as the Forest Rights Act 2006 or simply FRA 2006. It looked like the legacy of the British, that was mindlessly carried forward to exploit forests and forest-dependent people, was finally coming to an end. Millions of forest-dependent people who had been struggling for 150 years against the might of the state, represented by a despotic forest department, believed that their inherent and democratic rights over the forests were finally going to be restored.
The Bill stated: “For the first time in the history of Indian forests, the state formally admits that, for long, rights have been denied to forest-dwelling people, and the new forest law attempts not only to right that ‘historic injustice’ but also give forest communities’ role primacy in future forest management.”
Forest-dependent communities that were being pushed deeper and deeper into what remained of the forests were pleasantly surprised by the passage of FRA 2006, although forest-rights activists were cynical about the state’s intentions. Many called the Bill “a paper tiger”, like so many other pieces of legislation in India.
A National Forum for Forest People and Forest Workers (NFFPFW) document titled ‘Forest Rights Act: A Weapon for Struggle’ says: “The Act -- however well-meaning it may be -- by itself solves nothing and just because the Act is there the state is not going to hand over forest rights to people on a silver platter. The forest department and its coercive bureaucratic apparatus and its cronies like the timber mafia will not just vanish, and neither will the big conservation NGOs cease to raise a hulla each time people really get some rights. The development menace will remain, and both forests and people are going to be destroyed as usual, for dams, factories, roads, and mines.”
“However, the Act has given an unprecedented opportunity for various forest-rights and struggle groups to turn it into a weapon, provided they lend the necessary teeth to it,” the document concludes.
Why are forest-rights groups and environmentalists so suspicious of FRA 2006?
Run-up to FRA 2006: A bumpy ride
Besides the large-scale displacement of forest-dependent communities due to development projects like dams, mines, military bases, industries, and so on, their direct confrontation with the forest department in protected areas has been noteworthy, often with gruesome consequences. The department does not refer to these people as “forest-dwellers”; in fact, in the colonial lexicon, forest-dwellers are “encroachers of forest lands”. According to forest department logic, the primary reason for the disappearance of vast tracts of India’s forests is “encroachment”. This feudal mindset has resulted in the random eviction of forest-dependent communities, subjecting them to physical abuse, sexual assault, even cold-blooded murder. Although there are no official estimates of evictions by the department to make way for protected areas such as wildlife sanctuaries, it is estimated that at least 300,000 families (1.5 million people) have been displaced in just over five years, since 2004.
The NFFPFW document adds: “…As if the forest cover of the country would miraculously increase if communities of landless people occupying and using forest land for subsistence-level cultivation are evicted. The juggernaut of conservation rolled on, large-scale evictions started and neither the Government of India nor conservation NGOs paid any heed to the fact that most of India’s forests were taken away from communities by the colonial government without settling any rights, and that the real and biggest encroacher is the forest department itself! The settlement of rights process, which is mandatory under the Indian Forest Act, 1927 before declaring any area as government forests, never took place in many areas, and in many others, surveys were incomplete… People with unrecorded rights were found to inhabit a strict ‘state space’, where they were treated as intruders, encroachers, and an enemy of the forest and wildlife.”
As I write this piece, I receive the disturbing news that two adivasi boys -- Satyen Rava (21) and Phiron Oraon (20) -- had been shot by staff at the Buxa Tiger Reserve in north Bengal, on December 30, 2009, and that the boys were in a critical condition. Their crime: they were looking for their buffaloes that had gone missing in the reserved area. This, despite the ‘empowering’ FRA 2006 already in force!
The history of repression of forest-dwellers in the Buxa Tiger Reserve is a telling example of the forest department’s high-handedness. In the past five years, at least 10 adivasis have been killed by forest staff -- eight belonging to the Rava tribe and six from the village of North Poro. In April 2005, a public hearing was conducted by civil rights groups in the Buxa Tiger Reserve. The jury, headed by the then chairman of the West Bengal State Legal Services Authority, revealed gruesome stories of torture and murder. It said:
“Torture and atrocities are being perpetrated by the officials/employees of the forest department upon the forest-dwellers… The government is maintaining silence over the plight of the forest-dwellers… The forest department has adopted coercive methods to compel the forest-dwellers to leave their dwelling places and to move elsewhere to an unknown destiny.”
The story of the Buxa Tiger Reserve is not an isolated one; almost all forest-dwellers inhabiting protected areas have faced brutality at the hands of the forest department. In Jasipur, in Orissa’s Mayurbhanj district, which lies in the Simlipal Tiger Reserve, I heard stories of atrocities on forest-dwelling adivasis some of whom had been forcibly displaced as many as seven times in the past 15 years. On many occasions, the department has even used elephants to raze homes and destroy crops!
Indeed, a report (in 2005) by the tiger task force (appointed by the then prime minister of India to probe tiger deaths in various tiger reserves) described the situation as “truly a war within, imploding inside reserves and taking everything in its wake”.
The argument that the state, conservationists, even the mainstream media use over and over again is that increase in human and cattle populations and the so-called ‘biotic pressure’ are responsible for the destruction of India’s forests and biodiversity. What they forget is that forest-dwellers have always shared a strong cultural and spiritual bond with the forests; this does not allow them to exploit them either out of choice or greed. Non-sustainable and commercial use of forests is something that the urban elite and the state have forced upon the forest people.
In such a situation, why would the state want to give legal rights over the forests to forest-dependent people? Is FRA 2006 really just another ‘paper tiger’?
Having suffered for decades at the hands of the forest department, forest-dwellers (both adivasis and other forest-dependent communities) have adopted two kinds of strategies. One: in a well-coordinated effort, helped by forest rights groups, people in many states -- Orissa, Maharashtra, Gujarat, Rajasthan, Tamil Nadu, West Bengal, Jharkhand, and Madhya Pradesh -- began crowding the offices of district collectors with thousands of claims of ownership over their lands in forest areas, especially after the 1988 forest policy. Two: in many states such as Bihar, Uttar Pradesh and parts of Orissa, people responded by grabbing forest lands and taking control of them.
In an attempt to tackle rising tensions, the union government issued two circulars in 2004 to regularise lands cultivated by tribals and convert all forest villages into revenue villages. But the Supreme Court put a stay on these moves. That same year, guidelines were issued to bar the eviction of tribals “except ineligible encroachers”, without adequately defining the term. In November 2005, another set of guidelines sought to put in place, for the first time, “village-level processes for recognising rights”.
The groundswell as well as political lobbying by forest rights groups led to the drafting of the Forest Rights Bill, 2005. However, both the conservation lobby and forest rights campaigners opposed the Bill citing their own reasons and logic. For conservationists, no rights could ever be given to forest-dependent people because “people destroy the forests, and wildlife and people cannot co-exist”! The rights groups claimed that the Bill did not mention the rights of traditionally forest-dependent ‘non-tribals’.
The government was forced to send the Bill to a joint parliamentary committee (JPC) for its recommendations. The JPC took its time making radical changes to the draft Bill and sending it back to the government. After much hesitation and dilly-dallying, the tribal affairs minister finally placed the Bill in the lower house of parliament on December 15, 2006, much to the dismay of rights groups as it included as many as 16 major amendments made by the minister. On December 18, 2006, the upper house debated the amendments for hours, finally passing the Bill after an assurance by the minister of accommodating the concerns in the ‘notification’.
The government took more than a year to ‘notify’ the Bill; when it came, in January 2008, rights groups were up in arms again as they felt the ‘rules’ were not in keeping with the spirit of the Act. Some alleged that the rules made the Act look like just another tool to broaden the ambit of the much-criticised joint forest mechanism. Others claimed that instead of empowering communities with forest ‘rights’, the rules simply highlighted their ‘duties’, cleverly keeping control over people’s resources in the hands of the forest department.
The role of the gram sabha -- envisaged in the Act as an ‘empowered’ decision-making body at the village level -- is also in question in terms of its ability to make decisions ‘independent’ of the forest and revenue departments. Madhu Sarin, a senior forest rights activist, says: “The Act makes gram sabhas vulnerable to interventions from authorities who may influence their legitimate claims.”
According to the NFFPFW: “While FRA 2006 contains many positive elements, there are enough ambiguities and loopholes that clutter it… it has been framed in a way as to keep a large section of forest-dwellers out of its purview. For instance, only those residing in forest areas for 75 years will be qualified as “other traditional forest-dwellers” (other than scheduled tribes), and only those “primarily residing in” forest areas can claim rights under the Act.’
Ripples of the Act felt in Orissa’s forests
With a strong community forest management (CFM) network in place, one would think that forest-dependent communities in Orissa would have been upbeat after FRA 2006 was passed. For, the Act promised them legitimate rights over the forests they had preserved for decades, against all odds. But as I moved from village to village, I discovered that people on the ground were utterly confused about the concept, scope, process, even the objective of the Act. In many places, villagers had not even heard about the Act. In others, they had already filed claim forms with the help of NGOs. But these were mostly individual claims.
In Rangamatia, in Debgarh district, a predominantly tribal village where a women’s forest protection committee protects and manages more than 400 hectares of forests, villagers said: “We have filed forms for individual pattas (land titles). But the SDM (sub-divisional magistrate) office has misplaced all of them. So we don’t know how they are going to process our claims.” When I asked whether they had filed a collective claim over the village forests, they were not sure whether that was possible!
It was evident in many places that the forest department was spreading misinformation about the scope of the Act and misguiding forest communities, especially discouraging them from claiming community rights over the forests. While in Kuchilaghati and Laxmiposhi villages in Mayurbhanj district, people did not know about FRA 2006, in Budhikhamari and Kadiakhar villages in the same district, people said that the forest department had promised community rights only to those villages that had formed Van Suraksha Samitis under the joint forest management programme. “Forest officials say that community forest management (CFM) villages will not get community rights,” they said. The fact that the department was enticing people to form VSSs under the pretext of giving them pattas was corroborated by villagers in almost all the CFM villages I visited, in eight districts.
An information booklet along with claim forms being circulated by the forest department in Mayurbhanj district makes it clear that community claims are only for VSSs formed under the JFM. Some of the passages of the ‘acceptance record’ in the booklet read like this:
- “The claim of rights over community forest submitted by members of the local VSS is herewith accepted. As the villagers, after forming a VSS, have been protecting .......... hectares of ........... forest since date .............. or prior to date December 13, 2005, and as all the major citizens of the village are members of the said VSS, the following rights over the community forest are herewith granted to them.”
The first in the list of rights granted reads: “......... and the VSS will protect and manage the forest keeping in priority its wellbeing as per conceptualised in the Joint Forest Management Resolution by the Government of Orissa.” The list of rights granted goes on to basically state the ‘duties’ of the community as decided by the forest department, rather than spell out without ambiguity the ‘rights’ of the people. While the VSS gains primacy, the FRC (forest rights committee) and the gram sabha -- clearly spelt out in FRA 2006 -- do not even find mention in the document.
The forest officer at Baripada, headquarters of Mayurbhanj district, nonchalantly said: “All the forests in India belong to the forest department.” He added: “However, we in Mayurbhanj are doing exemplary work in expediting the process of forest rights claims. We have already done the mapping in most villages, and filing of forms by villagers is happening simultaneously. And we do not differentiate between CFM and JFM committees.”
Just a couple of hours before I had this conversation with him, I talked to villagers in Budhikhamari, where the CFM committee, formed in the early-1970s had turned into a VSS a few years back, informed me that they were protecting over 800 hectares of forest. I asked the forest official whether rights over all 800 hectares of forest would be granted to the village. He said: “No. There is a resolution that one forest committee cannot be granted more than 200 hectares of forest”!
“But the rules do not talk about anything like that,” I said.
“No, this is a decision taken by the Orissa forest department,” he replied.
There is a flipside to whatever community claims are said to have been approved so far in the state. A report by Campaign for Survival and Dignity (CSD) states: “Government reports claim to have approved a number of community claims but these seem to be claims for land for development facilities under Section 3.2. As in other states, officials (in Orissa) continue equating claims for development facilities with claims for community forest rights.”
Despite several official circulars on conducting awareness-building exercises on the Act, hardly any headway has been made in the state. In several villages in Nayagarh, Bolangir and Debgarh districts, however, non-government agencies have done good work in spreading awareness about FRA 2006. But they still fall short on the matter of community claims.
The most dangerous misunderstanding among the people is the aspect of ‘non-tribals’ having to prove 75 years of existence on the land before they can claim rights over the same. In many places, it has been propagated that the Act does not allow non-tribals to make either individual or community claims. Added to this is the typical feudal setting that still exists in rural India in which non-tribal landlords and their cronies virtually rule over tribals and other weaker sections of society. NGOs have not made enough effort to address the new ‘class’ issues emerging in various parts of the state, in the wake of FRA 2006.
An intense conflict over rights has entangled two adjacent villages in Bolangir district where 10 families comprising tribals and dalits now live in absolute fear of being thrown off their land and out of their homes. A couple of days before I visited the village of Kuimunda, hundreds of people from the nearby Bharuamunda village (mostly inhabited by non-tribals) had attacked Kuimunda and destroyed many houses. The men fled in fear, so the women had to face the abuse and blows of the angry mob. I was told that all this happened in the presence of the police and members of an NGO. The day I visited the village, the men were still in hiding, except for one man who was unwell.
A very old woman in Kuimunda said: “We have been living here since my grandfather was alive, so far as I can remember. Now, suddenly they are saying that we have just come here only to get pattas under some forest rights law. I do not know whether this law is good or bad, but certainly it has brought us unspoken troubles.” From my conversations with the women of the village, I figured that most of the families had been living here for at least 80 years.
When I got to Bharuamunda, the villagers were holding a meeting. They were, of course, discussing the ongoing crisis, in the presence of members of an NGO. A number of views emerged from their discussions:
“FRA 2006 is a menace… It will usurp the lands of the non-tribals and distribute them among the tribals… The forest department will clear all the forests we have been protecting and turn them into farmlands for the tribals… Some dalits are acting as middlemen to make these lands available to the tribals…”
One old man took me around the forest and showed me how large tracts of it had recently been cleared. I also gathered that both these villages had been protecting the forests together for years. “But then, how come there is this allegation that people in the other village have just moved in?” There was no clear answer.
Indeed, the entire situation is ambiguous. But the fact remains that while the villagers of Bharuamunda rant and rave and the villagers of Kuimunda cower in fear, the forest is being clear-felled. Could this situation have been created deliberately?
At a conference of chief ministers on forest rights, held in New Delhi on November 4, 2009, Orissa Chief Minister Naveen Patnaik said that about 300,000 claims had been filed by ‘tribals’ in the state, and that district-level committees had already approved 68,000 claims. There was no mention of community claims in his statement. State government officials allege that a number of community claims have been issued, but they do not specify whether these include land for development facilities or for community forest rights.
It’s no wonder that with little information available on community claims, even forest protection committees are filing claims mostly for individual pattas. In a number of places, the forest department is helping people file forms precisely because these are claims for land already under farming, and the department has nothing to lose. Also because there is pressure on officials to wrap up the process at the earliest. By doing a ‘cosmetic’ job, the forest department achieves two things: one, no claims are made over the forest, meaning the department retains its control; two, the local dynamics of landholding and the local social power structure remain unchanged so that the forest department does not have to bother about rearranging its position!
In the tribal village of Baghjor in Bolangir district a senior member of the VSS confessed that he had submitted a community claim over the village forests that the other members did not even know about. When I asked how he had managed to get the villagers’ signatures on the form, he admitted that they had been forged. I insisted: “You have typically lived the tribal way of life; how could you scheme up such a thing?” He replied: “There are people from outside who guide me to do all this. I do not even know the area of forest demarcated in the form, or what rights have been claimed. I have surely committed a crime and I ask for pardon from my fellow villagers!” He was visibly upset. Villagers being misguided like this is commonplace throughout Orissa.
Another striking fact about the state’s progress in implementing FRA 2006 is that most of the forest land being claimed is under the revenue department; the state apparatus is steadfastly holding on to reserved forest land. Although there are instances of land being issued in reserved forests such as the Badrama (Sambalpur) and Karlapat (Kalahandi) wildlife sanctuaries, the forest department is harassing tribals in the Simlipal Tiger Reserve in an attempt to oust them permanently from the forests. According to the CSD report, in the Sunabeda Wildlife Sanctuary and the Simlipal Tiger Reserve, the forest department prohibits agencies from even carrying out awareness-building exercises.
All hope of forest communities exercising their rights under FRA 2006 is lost in areas where big mining companies have set up operations. In the Niyamgiri area in Rayagada and Kalahandi districts -- where Vedanta/Sterlite is awaiting environment clearance to start an ambitious bauxite mining project -- the FRA process has not taken off, with both revenue and forest officials sitting on circulars, shielded by the miner-bureaucrat-politician lobby and NGOs that do not dare intervene for fear of repression by the police and company goons.
The CSD report adds: “There is also disturbing news about the arrival of paramilitary forces in Malkanagiri district for anti-Naxal operations, the impact of which is beginning to show on the local tribals. Fifty sarpanches (heads of panchayats) of the district petitioned the district collector to stop combing operations in their area as there weren’t any Naxals there. Instead of accepting their demands, they arrested 14 of the sarpanches. The paramilitary forces are reported to have shot dead two Koya tribal youth who were trying to run away out of fear on seeing them. This has created such a scare in the area that the Koya tribals of 10-12 villages have abandoned their homes and lands and moved down to lower areas. Instead of having their rights recognised (which is precisely why FRA 2006 was enacted), such people are now made to lose the little they had…”
It is an irony that at one level the Indian state is trumpeting the righting of an “historical injustice” perpetuated for centuries on forest communities and, on the other, sending police and paramilitary forces to repress the very same communities for demanding their due rights over natural habitats, community resources, and choice of livelihood.
With Orissa’s vast expanse of primary forests being the most favoured destination for global and national mining giants of late, it is not clear what the government – central and state – is committed to: implementing the FRA 2006 to end the ‘historical injustice’ to forest communities or displacing and decimating them by pursuing a dangerously aggressive mining policy, which has been abandoned even by the West.
However, many movement groups – who had earlier rejected the Act as just another trick to mislead and fool the people – have now started using it as a weapon in their struggles. What unfolds in the months to come, especially in Orissa, will surely be feedback enough to conclude whether the FRA 2006 is for ‘justice’ or just a joke.
(Subrat Kumar Sahu is an independent writer and filmmaker based in New Delhi. He was formerly with TerraGreen, a magazine on the environment and sustainable development. He was awarded the Infochange Media Fellowship 2009 to research the history of community forest management in his native Orissa)
Infochange News & Features, April 2010