Implementation of Forest Rights Act is a disaster

The only scientific evidence to find the date of occupation of forest land is the satellite imagery

United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) just before G20 meeting at New Delhi, reported that there is rapidly closing window to raise ambitions in order to limit warming to 1.50 Celsius above pre industrial levels and progress to cut the emissions is still inadequate. It further pitched for peaking global emission by 2025 and cutting it by 43% by 2030, and 60% by 2035 from 2019 levels to close the gaps. G20 countries adopted the suggestions in Delhi leaders’ declaration on 9th September, with a clause that it can be adhered by countries based on their national circumstances. The declaration did not fix any time limit to phase out consumption of fossil fuel, but it did say that the global renewable energy capacity to be tripled by 2030. Further finance is also promised by developed countries to poor nations for adaptation. There is no provision to hold member countries to account for their failure to follow it.

G20 declaration has also referred to the launch of global bio fuel alliance envisaging all member nations to aim for 20% ethanol blending in petrol by 2025. It was followed after India’s launch of International Solar Alliance for achieving speed and scale in renewable energy transition and LiFE (Lifestyle for Environment) to encourage eco friendly activities to minimize carbon footprints. The success of G20 is attributed to India’s Presidency and it was PM’s initiative that led to African Union being accepted as a permanent member of G20. However G20 countries have not done enough to end deforestation of natural forests. In the sidelines of Glasgow Climate summit it was resolved by countries holding 90% of forests on globe to end deforestation by 2030, though India is not the signatory to this, no further review on this has taken place.

Having been aware that trees are the cheapest source of capturing carbon, it is needed to drive massive afforestation and more importantly to end deforestation of natural forests. At present we are facing deforestation and occupation of forest lands by communities residing in and around forests. The ecological security of the country is being compromised at a time when different regions of globe are affected by climatic catastrophes like Sea surges, droughts, floods, landslides, food shortage etc.

Forest Rights Act, 2006 has been the biggest tool for destruction of forests in the history of our country and the amended Forest (Conservation) Act would be the second biggest tool for destruction. The Act was promulgated in 2006 and rules were made to commence implementation from 1st January 2008. It provide for the recognition of rights over forest land for tribal families in occupation of forest land as on 13th December 2005 and also for other traditional forest dwellers (OTFDs) in occupation of forest land for three generations (75 years) as on this date. A list of 13 evidences were also suggested to be followed by Forest Rights Committees (FRCs) entrusted to verify the claims relating to individual forest rights, community forest rights and also the rights for the sustainable management of forests.

Thereafter the law provided for gram sabhas to examine the claims and forward the recommendation to sub divisional level committee (SDLC), who in turn will recommend to district level committee (DLC) for final approval. In addition the law also provided for the monitoring of the implementation by State level committee headed by Chief Secretary as well as Ministry of Tribal Affairs (MoTA), Government of India. MoTA was made the Nodal Agency for the implementation and Forest officers had very little role, except that the jurisdictional forest officers were the members of SDLCs and DLCs.

With the promulgation of Forest (Conservation) Act, 1980 all encroachments on forest land up to 25-10-1980 were regularized, yet the public representatives wanted forest encroachments to continue. They found a new cutoff date (13-12-2005) for regularization of encroachments. Within two three years of implementation rights were recognized for all claimants including OTFDs. In view of the fact that all encroachments on forest land made till 25-10-1980 were regularized and OTFDs needed 75 years of occupation as on 13-12 2005, all the claims made by them across the country were bogus. The irony is that these bogus claims were regularized. This opened a floodgate of continued plundering of forests and occupation of forest lands. There is no last date fixed for receiving the claims.

MoTA on the other hand has been making several relaxations and diluting the provisions of the law. The only scientific evidence to find the date of occupation of forest land is the satellite imagery. They issued guidelines to the states to ignore satellite imagery, if other evidences testify the claim. This led to large scale bungling and reliance was placed on concocted evidences duly ignoring the scientific evidence. Bogus claims were approved.

The misuse of the Act has taken place all over the country and the claims have been approved relying on village elders’ statements and ration cards. How can village elder testify 75 years old occupation by OTFDs? People’s representatives across political affiliations have been encouraging STs and OTFDs to file more claims for their vote bank, and that is taking toll on our forests.

On comparing the statistics available on web site of MoTA, it is found that from 2012-13 to 2022-23 individual forest rights granted in Chhattisgarh has increased from 5.36 to 9.19 lakh acres, in Madhya Pradesh from 5.06 to 9.03 lakh acres, in Andhra Pradesh from 2.02 to 4.49 lakh acres and in Odhisha from 4.73 to 6.67 lakh acres. Recently Odhisa has come up with a new scheme, “Mo jungle Jami Yojane” with only purpose to grant more rights for electoral benefits.

Along with other states, both telagu states have also misused the Act and encouraged communities to occupy forest land and claim rights. To appease the claimants district Collectors, other revenue and forest officers are pressurized to process the claims and grant rights. Andhra Pradesh has granted rights over 2 lakh acres in January 2022 and Telangana has granted 4 lakh acres to STs in July 2023. Another 7 lakh acres for OTFDs in Telangana are in pipeline. As elections approach, the dividends will be reaped by parties in power.

In a glaring case of misuse of the Act, Prashant Kumar Jha the then head of Forest Force Telangana on 20th July 2018 wrote to State’s Chief Secretary informing Forest Minister’s dicta to Forest Officers not to evict unauthorized occupants that carried a clear message of recognition of any number of freshly made claims. He sought help to clear unauthorized occupation, but no help came forward. Bogus claims are being continued to be approved.

B K Singh Retired Principal Chief conservator of Forests (Head of Forest Force) Karnataka

( Source : Guest Post )
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