Implementation of Forest Rights Act: Towards an informed collective action by stakeholders

An overview of the provisions of FRA and the challenges in its implementation. The Azim Premji University and collaborating organizations plan to facilitate interaction between stakeholders and informed collective action for implementation.

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Introduction and Background

This essay summarizes the provisions of the so-called, Forest Rights Act (FRA) in India and the challenges in its implementation. The Azim Premji University, along with collaborating organizations, plans to create a platform to facilitate interaction between various stakeholders and informed collective action towards the effective implementation of the FRA. This paper is to serve as a background note for the proposed collective action. 

The Azim Premji Foundation is involved in the efforts to provide quality schooling for all’ in partnership with different state governments in India. The goal of providing quality schooling for all’ in India can be reached only if the challenges faced by different social groups, especially the vulnerable ones, like the scheduled tribes, in the domain of education are addressed. These challenges are closely interlinked with their socio-economic conditions.

In this context, there are indications that the implementation of the FRA has the potential to improve the living conditions of the tribal communities in India, and this, in turn, can facilitate their access to and quality of schooling. It is this indication that has encouraged the Azim Premji Foundation (which includes the Azim Premji University) to consider the creation of a platform to bring together various governmental and non-governmental stakeholders to think about and take effective actions for the implementation of the FRA.

This note is meant to facilitate discussion between the stakeholders (including representatives from the tribal communities). It is not intended to be comprehensive in terms of the origin of the Act or the status of its implementation, as there are detailed articles/​reports available on these issues1.

Why Forest Rights Act?

Though the tribal communities in India had been using forests for generations, such use was not based on any legal right. Also, they frequently shifted residence and activities for their subsistence from one place to another within the forest, which too has complicated the issue of their rights. (On the other hand, many farmers in India got their claim over a piece of land accepted legally by demonstrating their occupation for a long time). The absence of formal rights, as well as mobility of the tribal people, enabled the state to exercise control over forests without recognizing forest use by the tribal communities. It is a well-known fact that the colonial rulers of India have brought forests under the control of the government and this has continued after the independence of the country. Moreover, the control of state became stronger over time and as the conservation of forest became an international and national agenda in the 1980s. It has led to the increasing denial or intermediation of the use of forests by the tribal population. The government imposed forest conservation laws without considering the livelihood needs of the people who have depended on it for generations. Moreover, there were minimal efforts to enlist the support of these communities in the management of forests. In that sense, the Indian situation is somewhat different from many other countries, where the efforts to conserve forests have, by and large, gone hand in hand with the efforts to meet the livelihood needs of forest-dependent people. 

What is Forest Rights Act?

Though it is commonly called, the Forest Rights Act’, the actual name is the Scheduled Tribes and Other Traditional Forest Dwellers (Recognition of Forest Rights) Act, 2006. Through this act, there are three major rights on forests to be transferred to the forest-dwelling tribal people2: These include:

a. Title for Forest Land Under Occupation: This includes the right to hold and live in the forest land under the individual or common occupation for habitation or self-cultivation for livelihood by the members of a forest-dwelling Scheduled Tribe or other traditional forest dwellers’. However, such land shall be under the occupation of an individual or family or community on the date of commencement of this Act and shall be restricted to the area under actual occupation and shall in no case exceed an area of four hectares’.

b. Title to Community Forest Rights (CFR): This is the right of ownership, access to collect, use, and dispose of minor forest produce which has been traditionally collected within or outside village boundaries’. The Act defines the term minor forest produce” to include all non-timber produce of plant origin, including bamboo, brush wood, stumps, cane, tussar, cocoons, honey, wax, lac, tendu or kendu leaves, medicinal plants and herbs, roots, tubers, and the like”’. (In addition, the guidelines prepared to facilitate the implementation of the Act notes that the monopoly of the Forest Corporations in the trade of MFP in many States, especially in case of high value MFP, such as, tendu patta, is against the spirit of the Act and should henceforth be done away with. The forest right holders or their cooperatives/​federations should be allowed full freedom to sell such MFPs to anyone or to undertake individual or collective processing, value addition, marketing, for livelihood within and outside forest area by using locally appropriate means of transport’).

c. Title to Community Forest Resources. For example, this ensures other community rights of uses or entitlements such as fish and other products of water bodies, grazing (both settled or transhumant) and traditional seasonal resource access of nomadic or pastoralist communities’. It also includes the right of access to biodiversity and community right to intellectual property and traditional knowledge related to biodiversity and cultural diversity’. The rights under this clause include traditional grazing grounds; areas for collection of roots and tubers, fodder, wild edible fruits and other minor forest produce; fishing grounds; irrigation systems; sources of water for human or livestock use, medicinal plant collection territories of herbal practitioners; remnants of structures built by the local community, sacred trees, groves and ponds or riverine areas, burial or cremation grounds’.

The act also assigns the responsibility to the Central Government to allow diversion of forest land for certain specific uses, such as the construction of a school, hospital, etc., for the benefit of these forest-dwelling people (provided that the land required for each of this purpose is less than one hectare, and if this permission to divert forest land is carried out on the recommendation of the Grama Sabha).

The rights vested under the act are inheritable but not sale-able. The corresponding clause reads as follows: A right conferred by sub-section (1) shall be heritable but not alienable or transferable and shall be registered jointly in the name of both the spouses in case of married persons and in the name of the single head in the case of a household headed by a single person and in the absence of a direct heir, the heritable right shall pass on to the next-of-kin.’

However, the FRA does not grant certain rights, such as the traditional right of hunting or trapping or extracting a part of the body of any species of wild animal’.

The passing of this act should be working against the arbitrary eviction of tribal people from the forests where they live. The relevant part of the act notes: Save as otherwise provided, no member of a forest-dwelling Scheduled Tribe or other traditional forest dweller shall be evicted or removed from forest land under his occupation till the recognition and verification procedure (detailed in the FRA) is complete.’

The endowment of these rights under FRA also expects the tribal people to protect forests and associated common properties: ‘(a) protect the wildlife, forest and biodiversity; (b) ensure that adjoining catchments area, water sources and other ecologically sensitive areas are adequately protected; © ensure that the habitat of forest-dwelling Scheduled Tribes and other traditional forest dwellers is preserved from any form of destructive practices affecting their cultural and natural heritage; and (d) ensure that the decisions taken in the Grama Sabha to regulate access to community forest resources and stop any activity which adversely affects the wild animals, forest and the biodiversity are complied with’.

Mechanisms for implementation laid out in the Act

The Grama Sabha has to play an important role in the implementation of the FRA. It means a village assembly which shall consist of all adult members of a village and in case of States having no Panchayats, Padas, Tolas and other traditional village institutions and elected village committees, with full and unrestricted participation of women’. The role of the Grama Sabha is mentioned clearly in the Act. It shall be the authority to initiate the process for determining the nature and extent of individual or community forest rights’, by receiving claims, consolidating and verifying them and preparing a map delineating the area of each recommended claim in such manner as may be prescribed for the exercise of such rights’. The Grama Sabha shall pass a resolution (to award the title) and forward it to the Sub-Divisional Level Committee (SDLC).

The role of the panchayat is to identify habitations of tribal people and convene their grama sabhas. The panchayat has to facilitate the selection of sub-committee (from the members of grama sabha) called, the Forest Rights Committee (FRC). It is the Grama Sabha which elects other committees for the conservation and management of forest resources over which the tribal people have rights based on this Act.

The persons who are aggrieved by the decision of the Grama Sabha can approach SDLC, and this committee is expected to take a decision by following certain clauses in the Act. The SDLC consists of the sub-division officer, the forest official representing the sub-division, three members of block/​tehsil panchayats nominated by the District Panchayat (two of them should be from the scheduled tribes and preferably, forest dwellers) and the officer of the Tribal Welfare Department in charge of the sub-division. It is the SDLC which has to examine the resolution passed by the Gram Sabha and prepare the record of forest rights and forward it through the Sub-Divisional Officer to the District Level Committee for a final decision’. The DLC is chaired by the District Collector and attended by the District Forest Officer, three members of the District Panchayat (and two shall be scheduled tribes and preferably forest dwellers) and the District Officer of the Tribal Welfare Department. The people aggrieved by the decision of the SDLC can approach the DLC for the resolution. It is noted in the act that the decision of the District Level Committee on the record of forest rights shall be final and binding’. However, the State Government shall constitute a State Level Monitoring Committee to monitor the process of recognition and the transfer of forest rights.

However, the process of encouraging tribal people to claim their rights and the verification of such claims (to be carried out by the Forest Rights Committee – which is a sub-committee of the Grama Sabha) is resource-intensive, and it may not be realistic to expect that these people can do it on their own. This may require the support and assistance of external agencies such as non-governmental organizations.

After vesting forest rights to tribal people, the State Government is expected to support the exercise of these rights and use of the resources allocated to them. The relevant clause notes that the State Government is expected to ensure that through its departments especially tribal and social welfare, environment and forest, revenue, rural development, panchayati raj and other departments relevant to the upliftment of forest-dwelling scheduled tribes and other traditional forest dwellers, that all government schemes including those relating to land improvement, land productivity, basic amenities and other livelihood measures are provided to such claimants and communities whose rights have been recognized and vested under the Act’. 

Status of implementation

A description of the status of the implementation of the FRA as on 31 April 2018 is given by Ministry of Tribal Welfare, Government of India. Some key points are as following:

1. Around 42 lakh claims have been filed and 18.66 lakh claims are accepted. The decision of around 90 percent of claims have been taken and only the remaining are pending. The major part of the claims (40.5 lakhs) is for individuals. Only the remaining are for community rights. It may be noted that non-governmental organizations have questioned the veracity of the data published by the Ministry of Tribal Welfare and suggest that there could be an overestimation or over-reporting.

2. Among the major states, Maharashtra, MP, Chhattisgarh and Odisha are ahead in terms of individual titles distributed. Tripura is another state where a large number of individual titles are distributed. These states are also ahead in terms of the distribution of community titles. Kerala stands out with limited action in terms of community rights though it has distributed around 37,000 individual titles. The official position of the Government of Kerala, as informed to the Ministry of Tribal Welfare, Government of India, is that more time is needed because of the need for manual survey due to the density of forests there.

There are also non-governmental accounts of the status of implementation of the FRA. The citizens’ report’3 prepared by the CFR Learning and Advocacy Group of Maharashtra is one such document.

The report notes that a total of 5741 CFR rights claims had been recognised over and area of 7260.58 sq. km in the state by November 2016’. This, according to the report, is about the 20 percent of the so-called minimal estimate of the potential. Maharashtra is leading in this regard. However, the relative success of this implementation in the state is mainly in a few districts. Gadchiroli stands out with 66 percent of the potential area covered4 with two other districts – Nagpur and Nanded – with over 33 percent of the potential.

As far as MP is concerned, it has received claims for 5,82,302 Individual rights and 41795 community forest rights5. Out of these, 224882 individual rights and 27948 community forest rights titles were distributed. These account for 810,233.73 acres of forest land under individual quota and 13,32853.11 acres under Community forest rights. There seems to be about 50 percent rejection of individual forest claims.

Impact of implementation of the Act

There is one village that is celebrated’ whenever we discuss the implementation of FRA in India. This is Mendha-Lekha village in Gadchiroli district. The citizens’ report of Maharashtra notes that the village has been able to ensure effective village and forest governance leading to the security of livelihoods, financial and food security, secured access to natural resources, and cultural and ecological security. This village has become an example for many villages across the state and other parts of the country to learn effective village governance and forest management’. 

There are villages where the tribal people could collect and auction Bamboo from the forests. This has yielded significant revenues (to the tune of 9 – 16 lakh rupees) for specific tribal habitations6. Other case studies carried out in the Gadchiroli district could also see an improvement in the living conditions of tribal people including a notable improvement in their financial gains7. These financial gains include the wages for collecting NTFP and a share of the royalty (that is the revenue from sales minus the cost of collection) based on the number of houses in a habitation. This kind of sharing benefits even those households which cannot participate in the collection of NTFP (due to sickness of members or other emergency reasons). There are also villages with very few households (say 10 – 11) but managing a significant area (say 1973 hectares) of forests. Needless to mention that these households get a substantial income through the sale of NTFP including Bamboo. Tendu Patta is another major resource. This was auctioned conventionally by the Forest Department. There was a need for an intervention by the state government to ensure that the forest department has ceased the auctioning of tendu patta in the areas where CFR is given to the tribal people.

The communities have also put in place mechanisms to see that they get an income from NTFP on a sustainable basis. For example, given that bamboo is an important source of income8, its management is crucial to ensure the sustainability of incomes. Hence, the village namely Panchgaon, according to the Citizens’ Report has put in place an effective bamboo management plan to ensure sustainable extraction. As bamboo requires three years to grow, the region has been divided into three zones and bamboo is cut from these zones on a rotational basis once in three years, which enables regeneration of bamboo stalks.’ (p. 77). There can be other strategies to avoid overexploitation, like a cap on the number of bamboo culms that can be harvested by a member of the Grama Sabha in one day or the restrictions on the age and length of bamboo that can be harvested. 

In certain cases, the Forest Department has provided the required bamboo sapling. Non-governmental organizations like Amhi Amchya Arogyasathi help communities prepare working plans (for the management of community-controlled forests, to replant bamboo and to ensure the sustainable management/​conservation of other forest resources). There is a need to mark the stretches of plants that can be harvested in different years and to monitor the whole process to ensure that the harvesting does not harm young shoots, other plants and the wildlife. Some of these villages have also augmented these resources, say through the planting of certain trees such as custard apple, which has enhanced their returns. There can be planting of mixed species including mango, mahua, hirda, behera, char, etc in community-controlled lands. There can also be a strategy to avoid the harvesting of plants, such as bamboo, if the Grama Sabha so decides. Mendha-Lekha has stopped the harvest of bamboo after a few years. They have started using the NREGA to carry out forest conservation activities. They have also practised soil and water conservation that have enhanced the productivity of harvestable resources such, as bamboo.

The support of external organizations has helped certain gram sabhas to maintain detailed records of the NTFP harvest, the revenues collected and how these are distributed. These are also displayed publicly to ensure transparency. 

Challenges in implementation

Some of the key challenges are the following:

1. The FRA, especially the vesting of community forest rights, is yet to be implemented in many parts of the country. Even in the best-performing state, it is implemented in only a few districts.

2. Many tribal communities or grama sabhas are unaware of the provisions of FRA (and especially CFR). Hence, they have not taken adequate efforts to file their claims. The government departments have not encouraged them adequately to move ahead in this regard.

3. Some grama sabhas may not have the capacity to carry out the responsibilities expected from them. There is a persistent need for support from external agencies.

4. There is a need for such capacity to carry out appropriate documentation of evidence supporting claims and contest the possible adversarial attitudes in SDLC or DLC. The real acceptance of claims by SDLC and DLC require a strong push and will on the part of the higher-level authorities of the state. Otherwise, the specific members of SDLC and DLC may find loopholes to reject the claims. Or they may keep these claims pending without taking any decision. There may not be enough readiness and supporting facilities for the periodic meeting of SDLC or DLC.

5. Even when they have the right to harvest and market NTFP, the Forest Department may not grant them the required transport permit easily. Or it may require efforts on the part of grama sabhas to overcome the bureaucratic hurdles created by the Forest Department.

6. Bamboo is not recognized as an NTFP in many parts of India. This reduces the gains for tribal people even after the implementation of FRA. There may be a need for an active intervention on the part of different state governments to include Bamboo as part of NTFP.

7. There are different kinds of opposition on the part of the forest officials. At the lowest level, there is a resentment due to the reduced dependence on its functionaries by the tribal people. There are serious ideological differences between the Forest Department and local communities. In spite of the transfer of rights provided by the law to the communities, the Forest Department continues to distrust the gram sabhas’ capability to manage and conserve forests. They may support pre-FRA mechanisms, like Joint Forest Management (JFM) committees over which they have greater control.

8. There could be different kinds of middlemen who may try to corner the surplus of tribal people from the use of forest rights. There may not be many buyers in certain contexts, and the middlemen may exercise unwanted control in the process of marketing. 

Need for collective action

The experience from Gadchiroli district, where the implementation of the FRA is relatively successful compared to other states, points to the need for campaigns and collective actions. The Citizens’ Report of Maharashtra notes the collective action from the grassroots level, effective, collective and consolidated advocacy and technical inputs from mass movements and civil society groups; and a responsive and proactive administration, led by a number of sensitive district collectors. This led to multiple learning processes by actors at the district, taluka and village levels to understand and discuss the provisions of the law and its implication for supporting long-standing local struggles for resource use and governance rights. Through these study circle processes, groups in Gadchiroli gained clarity on the FRA. They collectively demanded to form FRCs at revenue village and hamlet level in Gadchiroli district’. A note on MP sees the importance for all stakeholders (including) government officials to understand the procedures and mechanisms of FRA and its implementation to expedite the process of settlement of claims in favour of forest-dwelling scheduled tribes’.

There may be a tendency for some people among the tribal communities to collude with the middlemen. This may lead to instances of over-extraction of forest resources. This can be prevented only if there is a strong cohesion within these communities. However, we should not expect that such a cohesion would exist in all social contexts. There is a need for conscious and informed collective action not only by the members of the tribal communities but also by others (like scientists and non-governmental organizations)

There is a need for collective action to encourage forest officials at different levels to assume a positive attitude towards the implementation of FRA. This may be needed to see that they do not object to the legitimate claims at SLDC or DLC; they issue permits to transport NTFP without any delay, and so on.

There is also an equally important need to include bamboo as part of the NTFP (in states where it has not been done so far) so that there can be a notable improvement in the welfare of people where such a resource is available. A similar intervention may be needed to leave Tendu Patta in CFR areas to the tribal people. There is a need to use the opportunities offered by the MGNREGA to carry out conservation activities within forests. This may have the twin benefits of enhancing the incomes of tribal people and reducing the cost of forest conservation. The sincere and genuine ones among the forest officials need to be convinced that the handing over of certain parts of the forest to the tribal people is not going to lead to its destruction.

In summary, the implementation of FRA may require overcoming certain hurdles. There is not enough awareness and information on the importance and provisions of this act among different stakeholders. There may not be enough clarity and guidelines on how to implement its clauses. There may not be enough pressure from below or willingness on the part of political and social mobilizers. There can be genuine concerns on the part of forest officials and environmentalists on the possible negative implications arising out of the non-coordinated actions of the tribal population under the influence of outsiders who are interested in extracting forest resources unsustainably.

It is not assumed here that the mere implementation of FRA is adequate. In order to ensure its usefulness, the community institutions of the tribal communities (including grama sabhas of the tribal population) have to be strengthened. Moreover, they may require support from well-meaning organizations to ensure the sustainable use of forest resources. Certain resources, like bamboo, may require appropriate replanting to ensure that the income from this source does not decline. All of this may require technical knowledge and managerial support. What could be the ways to provide such support, is an important question.

The implementation of FRA should not be seen as a strategy merely to enhance the welfare of the tribal communities. It could be an effective strategy for the protection of forests too. The FRA can be viewed as a strategy to conserve forests cost-effectively without depriving the livelihood of people who have depended on these for generations.

Framework of a possible collective action

An effective implementation of the FRA (leading to the improvement in the welfare of tribal communities and the management of forests on a sustainable basis) requires an informed collective action of different stakeholders both at the state (and national) level and also at the micro (village) level. The Azim Premji University and other collaborating organizations in different states together plan to facilitate such a collective action bringing together all stakeholders (tribal communities, government officials, non-governmental organizations, academics and research institutes).

The objectives of the platform could be the following:

1. Bringing together various stakeholders and enabling conversations among them.
2. Identifying the hurdles against the implementation of FRA and resources/​efforts required to overcome these hurdles.
3. Identifying and bridging the knowledge gaps, if any.
4. Facilitating the learning from the experience in different states and use these in other contexts.
5. Facilitating the implementation of FRA by working with different government departments, community and non-governmental organizations.
6. Observing the implementation to see that it is leading to the sustainable use of forest resources. 

9.1. Ideological parameters of collective action

The main objective of the collective action is to improve the living status and welfare of the tribal people through the effective implementation of the FRA. Sorting out the challenges and facilitating the move ahead in this regard are the main objectives. This may require a non-ideological, practical and a realistic approach. Non-ideological’ means that the efforts in this direction should not be marred by the unending and never resolvable contestations and conflicts influenced by one or other ideology. The following approaches are suggested in this regard.

1. We may not take the a priori position that tribal communities would manage forest resources on a sustainable basis if the responsibility is left to them. This is so even if they have been living and using forests in a sustainable manner in the past. Like any other community, tribal people can also be impacted by the changes in socio-economic conditions, and some of these may create internal conflicts, and hence, they may not be able to sustain collective actions that are necessary to persist with practices for the sustainable management of forests. There can be a few people within the community who may be influenced by the financial incentives offered by external actors to extract resources in an unstainable manner. In addition, it is incorrect to assume that tribal people would be aware of the need as well as all the practices that are required for the management of forests. Therefore, we may reiterate the need for state regulation and intervention by well-informed and motivated governmental and non-governmental organizations. How to facilitate the use of community rights over forests so that it enhances the livelihood of tribal people within the framework of this regulation is the crucial issue here.

2. Though the FRA outlines the rights of forest communities in national parks and wildlife sanctuaries, we may not focus on this aspect of the FRA (as long as the declaration of specific stretches of forests as national parks or wildlife sanctuaries is not used as a strategy to avoid the implementation of FRA). This is based on the impression that there would be a significant improvement in the welfare of tribal people, even if the FRA is adopted only in those forest areas which are outside the national parks and wildlife sanctuaries.

3. We may not take a position against the use/​diversion of forest lands for industrial activities, as long as these are carried out on the basis of the law of the land (and are not driven by cronyism). Hence, we may not take up ideologically-loaded questions, such as whether there should be industrialization or not, whether tribal people should have the right to self-determination or not, or whether the sociocultural features of tribal communities should be protected for eternity or not, and so on. This is based on our conviction that the implementation of the FRA may be delayed unendingly if it gets ensnared in these ideological debates. 

9.2. Methodology of practice

We may have a number of small meetings where different stakeholders meet informally and discuss the major hurdles against the implementation of the FRA. There can be a strategy to work through these different meetings – the issues discussed in one meeting are taken to the subsequent ones to seek appropriate solutions – so that there could be a higher degree of consensus towards the end. These informal meetings can culminate in a workshop where all stakeholders come together to reach an agreement. This can be taken to different levels of government for follow-up actions. We may work with specific state governments to observe the implementation and document the lessons.

Notes:

1. These include
https://​www​.atree​.org/​s​i​t​e​s​/​d​e​f​a​u​l​t​/​f​i​l​e​s​/​M​a​h​a​r​a​s​h​t​r​a​_​F​R​A​_​C​F​R​_​P​r​o​m​i​s​e​_​a​n​d​_​P​e​r​f​o​r​m​a​n​c​e​_​J​u​n​e​2017.pdf

and http://​www​.lead​-jour​nal​.org/​c​o​n​t​e​n​t​/​08394.pdf

2. Azim Premji University Team, Initiative for Effective Implementation of FRA

3. https://​www​.atree​.org/​s​i​t​e​s​/​d​e​f​a​u​l​t​/​f​i​l​e​s​/​M​a​h​a​r​a​s​h​t​r​a​_​F​R​A​_​C​F​R​_​P​r​o​m​i​s​e​_​a​n​d​_​P​e​r​f​o​r​m​a​n​c​e​_​J​u​n​e​2017.pdf

4. The citizens’ report notes that as of December 2016, 1355 CFR title deeds have been issued to 1191 villages over 434,181 ha of forest lands in Gadchiroli’.

5. Based on a personal note written by an observer.

6. The cases of such villages are mentioned in the citizens’ report on Maharashtra referred in footnote No. 3

7. One such study is available here: A Better Life for the Scheduled Tribes: Lessons from Gadchiroli, Maharashtra

8. It is not that bamboo is abundant in all areas. For example, it is abundantly available in 150 out of around 1200 villages which have received CFR.

Author

Azim Premji University Team, Initiative for Effective Implementation of FRA