Why India’s Forest Rights Act should be showcased at UN meet| Analysis
A speech by Babul Supriyo, minister of State for environment, at an UN meet has upset academics and forest rights activists who have been following India’s forest conservation policies closely.
Speaking at the opening ceremony of the 14th Conference of Parties to the United Nations Convention to Combat Desertification (UNCCD) being hosted by India, Supriyo highlighted joint forest management in conservation but didn’t mention the Forest Rights Act 2006 which has a provision of community forest resource rights. These provisions allow forest dwelling communities to take up conservation efforts.
Under joint forest management policy which began in the late 80s there is a partnership between forest department and dwellers or tribal populations in the fringe areas of a forest. Conservation activities are taken up as per a working plan of the forest department but dwellers are allowed to collect produce or claim economic benefits from the conservation efforts taken up together. But under the Forest Rights Act, dwellers have statutory rights to conserve forests and use resources from it sustainably.
It’s not clear why Supriyo remained mum on Forest Rights Act which can be a game changer if utilised carefully to address land degradation. But his silence assumes significance because the Supreme Court is presently hearing a petition challenging the Forest Rights Act.
“Joint Forest Management is similar to the Forest Rights Act but not the same. The working plans are drawn by the forest department and accountability remains with a forester but communities enjoy the benefits of the projects. It has been extremely successful in India,” said Siddhanta Das, director general of forests.
But Sharachchandra Lele, academic and forest policy expert, said “Unfortunately, the Minister’s statements show confusion between JFM and CFR rights under the FRA. JFM is a failed programme--many studies, including official evaluations such as one by Forest Research Institute, acknowledge that most JFM committees are defunct, that JFM provides no autonomy to local communities as it is fully controlled by the forest departments, and that even promised benefits under JFM have often not been shared properly,” he said.
He added that Community Forest Resource Rights (CFR rights) provisions of the Forest Rights Act provide statutory backing for decentralised management. “These rights cover all forests that are used by the community (not just patches of degraded land that the forest department is willing to allocated to JFM), their implementation is required as per the law and provides secure tenure, and autonomy in day-to-day management,” Lele said.
Supriyo should have highlighted the Forest Rights Act because it’s a unique legislation globally that gives ownership to large forest dwelling communities to take up afforestation and conservation measures. Since forest land is a common resource under community forest resource rights it’s more likely that communities will carefully use resources and develop policies to curb degradation or deforestation.
A Supreme Court bench led by Justice Arun Mishra had on February 13 ordered eviction of forest dwellers whose forest rights claims had been rejected. But the order was stayed on February 28 after the Centre and Gujarat government sought modification of the order following concerns raised by tribal rights activists and forest rights experts.
The top court was hearing an 11-year-old public interest case by wildlife activists challenging the Forest Rights Act. States have recently informed the Supreme Court that an exercise has been undertaken to review the rejected claims and have appealed for time to complete the process. Eight states have also admitted before the SC that authorities had failed to follow the due procedure under the law while deciding the claims.