Fourteen years after its enactment, the historic legislation Forest Rights Act remains only partially enforced across India. Data by the Government of India itself suggests that only about 17 percent of the legislation’s potential has been realised.
The key challenges in implementation relate to institutional and functional barriers that determine the state’s power versus the helplessness of the proposed tribes and other forest-dependent communities.
FRA is central legislation but implementation lies with the regional governments, where there has been a lack of political will to enforce this Act. The assertion of forest-dwelling communities’ control is in direct contrast with profit aiming corporates.
This Act limits the power and authority of the Forest Departments, which have been controlling the forests since the colonial era. The forest bureaucracy does not want to accept a challenge to their control over the forests and continues to be the single largest obstacle.
It has been observed that forest officials act in a feudal manner and are undermining the implementation of FRA, actively using coercion to restrain communities from claiming rights, fearing loss of departmental revenue.
There is evidence of that in the form of trench digging, fencing of village premises so that people can’t access the forests. There are cases of fencing of forest land that the forest department claims to be its territory when communities have already filed claims for these.
Side-lining the nodal agency
As far as the Tribal Affairs Department is concerned, there are structural and operational issues at play here. Progressive pronouncements by the Tribal Ministry are hardly acknowledged at the regional level and Jammu and Kashmir is a classic example.
The officers of the tribal department are hardly called to the meetings convened by the government even as it remains the nodal agency for FRA implementation. Instead, the officers of the Forest Department are conducting workshops and training programmes.
The Forest department is somewhat an accused party under FRA and they should not be given charge of FRA awareness. The Tribal Affairs Department is primarily involved in the implementation of welfare schemes for tribals and to be a department that is actually intended to implement the FRA, more concerted effort is required in empowering them.
Over the past few years what we have witnessed is that the mandate which is given to the Tribal Affairs Department has been diluted to a considerable extent and there has been no investment in capacity building. This is being repeated in J-K as well where the law is being rolled out by the administration in the absence of an elected government.
In J-K we have observed that gram sabha is replaced with closed door meetings to set up the Forest Rights Committees (FRC’s) at a time when much of Kashmir was snowbound, with five to six feet of snow in forest areas.
Gender justice is part of FRA
The FRA is also a gender-inclusive law but that has not been incorporated into the approach. This is largely due to the deeply patriarchal and structural biases that exist within the state bureaucracy.
For women, the constraints are further complicated by the traditional mind-set that doesn’t recognise women as titleholders and decision-makers.
In the recently held gram sabhas across J-K, the participation of women in these meetings remained abysmal. There are names of women members in the rights committees (FRC) but these women were hardly present in the gram sabha that elected them. It was only a legal requirement that their names were enlisted.
It is likely that in the future they will have a limited say in the conduct of affairs in the committee and either their husbands, brothers or male relatives will be representing them in the FRC meetings.
The FRA has the potential to restore the rights of forest dwellers on forty million hectares of forest land in more than a hundred thousand villages across India. This covers one-quarter of Indian villages.
At least 150 million people including ninety million tribals who are largely dependent on forest resources are going to benefit from the Act. In J-K, 12 percent of the population belongs to the Gujjar community, the majority of whom depend on forests, and the non-tribal forest dwellers will also benefit from this law.
However, there is a lack of understanding of the nuances of the Act. There is a lack of training for implementing staff as well. And unless systematic training and then outreach campaigning are planned there is going to be very little effective implementation of this Act.
Danish Yousuf is pursuing a Master’s programme in Social Work (MSW) at Delhi University. He has pursued a diploma in Peace & Conflict studies at Lady Shri Ram College for Women.