‘Deadline for granting tribals land rights will not solve FRA execution issues’
In an interview with Hindustan Times, activist Shankar Gopalakrishnan says setting a target date for granting land rights to tribals under the Forests Rights Act (FRA) is likely to become, in practice, a cut-off date after which the state and central governments will declare – without any basis - that THE fra implementation is “complete”, and then proceed to shut down implementation entirely.opinion Updated: Sep 13, 2017 10:47 IST
The Centre has said it would soon set a cut-off date for the states to grant tribals and other traditional forest dwellers legal title of the land they have traditionally used. According to a report in HT, the sluggish pace at which land titles are being granted to tribals in some states has prompted the Prime Minister’s office to nudge the tribal affairs ministry to set the deadline. The tribal affairs ministry, which monitors the grant of land titles under the Scheduled Tribes and the Traditional Forest Dwellers (Recognition of Forest Rights) Act, 2006 or the Forest Rights Act (FRA), will set the deadline soon.
KD: What is the implementation status of the Forest Rights Act? Which are the states that are doing well/badly?
SG: Implementation of the Act continues to be abysmal. As per estimates available at the end of 2016, community rights have been formally recorded for only 3% of the forests over which forest dwelling communities have rights. The biggest problem is resistance from forest officials. They continue to block recognition of rights, illegally divert forest land for companies without consent of forest dwellers, and harass and attack forest dwellers. In multiple states, district forest officials have refused to sign certificates that have already been approved; forest officials have evicted people with recognised rights, filed cases against them or planted trees on their lands; etc. No state is complying with the law in full.
KD: The Prime Minister’s Office has nudged the tribal affairs ministry to set a deadline for granting land rights to tribals…
SG: This might appear to be a positive development. But one has to see it in the context of the approach of this government. Ever since the BJP came to power in 2014, there has been an active and systematic attempt to sabotage the Act. The environment ministry has continued to illegally divert forest land for corporate projects and has illegally exempted projects from compliance. It has also formulated policies like the Compensatory Forestation Fund Act, or policies for privatisation of forests, which ignore the Act. State governments - particularly BJP-led ones - have passed parallel policies that undercut the Act and provide funds only to forest department-controlled bodies and programmers.
In this context, setting a target date is likely to become, in practice, a cut-off date after which the state and central governments will declare – without any basis - that implementation is “complete”, and then proceed to shut down all implementation entirely.
Millions of people have still not even been made aware of this law - for instance, even today, there is still no complete official translation of the procedural rules into Hindi, leave alone regional and advice languages. Any cut-off now would mean that cores of people would never receive their rights.
This would be a repeat of precisely the century-old historical injustice that the Act was intended to address.
KD: What needs to be done for better implementation of the Act?
SG: The biggest problem is the consistent message from the central and state governments that forest officials can violate this Act with impunity. Hence the first priority should be clear instructions to prosecute forest officials who violate the Act (violations are criminal offences under the FRA and, often, under the SC/ST (Prevention of Atrocities) Act as well). State and central policies that violate or ignore the Act should be withdrawn and revised. Under the law, recognition of individual and community rights, as well as the consent of village assemblies, is mandatory before the execution of any other project, plan or plantation on forest lands. This should be enforced. Only then can we begin the transformation of this country’s forest management institutions that the FRA mandates - from a colonial, autocratic and corrupt legacy towards a democratic future.