Campaign Welcomes Notification, But Condemns Government's Efforts to Undermine / Subvert Democratic
CAMPAIGN WELCOMES NOTIFICATION OF FOREST RIGHTS ACT, RULES
Condemns Government's Efforts to Undermine and Subvert Democratic Institutions in Rules
The Campaign for Survival and Dignity, a federation of tribal and forest dwellers' organizations from eleven States, welcomes the decision of the Central government to finally notify the Forest Rights Act and Rules. This long overdue decision has come in the wake of a massive struggle by people's movements and political parties.
Yet this welcome step has been accompanied, just as when the Act was passed, by efforts to undermine key elements of this legislation. Since the time of the Joint Parliamentary Committee's historic unanimous recommendations in favour of democratic recognition of forest rights, it has been the consistent effort of the government to reduce the scope of this law, to continue the injustice to forest dwellers and to retain its powers over forests and their resources. The Rules continue this trend. Some of the more significant problems include:
Making the Gram Sabha unmanageable
According to the Act, the gram sabha plays a key role in determining who has rights to which forest resources. However, Rule 3(1) now defines the gram sabha as the gram sabha of the panchayat, which would include numerous actual villages. This will make democratic functioning impossible (as the number will simply be too large); further, in many areas forest dwellers will be the minority. This contradicts both the Forest Rights Act â€“ section 2(p) of which clearly states that, in Scheduled Areas at least, the gram sabha should be that of the hamlet â€“ as well as the Panchayats (Extension to Scheduled Areas) Act, 1996. The expert group on the Rules had also recommended a clear procedure for such hamlet gram sabhas to work. The Joint Parliamentary Committee had recognised this when recommending that hamlet-level gram sabhas should occur in all areas. This Rule will make the law impossible to implement in many areas.
Excluding genuine claimants while including contractors and traders
The Act contains clauses that allow for exclusion of many real forest dwelling communities by introducing very ambiguous criteria ("reside in forests", "bona fide livelihood needs", 75 years of residence â€“ while excluding those who were forced into the forest by the government itself). This will make proving eligibility difficult, and the Rules make no effort to address this ambiguity.
Instead, the government has rejected a clause in the Rules â€“ recommended by the expert group - stating that those who use hired labour, such as contractors, traders, etc., should be excluded from being eligible. There is also no procedure provided by which non-ST forest dwellers are required to establish that they fulfil the Act's requirements, while ST's are required to produce an ST certificate.
Finally, Rule 11(a) requires two types of evidence for a claim â€“ meaning that documentary evidence will be required in many cases, which many forest dwellers do not have.
In sum, this will mean this Act will be misused both to take over forest land and for the government to exclude many of us.
Ignoring community conservation of forests
The Rules make no mention of the Act's historic provisions on community conservation powers â€“ excepting a mention in Rule 6(a) which refers to the community's "duties" under section 5. Section 5 of the Act is in fact about the powers of the community. The pro-formas attached to the Rules entirely leave out the right over community forest resources under section 3(1)(i) of the Act., a key right for communities protecting their forests. Clearly the government is not serious about democratic forest protection.
Failing to institute transparent procedures for wildlife conservation
The current Rules again make no mention of the Act's equally historic provisions on transparent and scientific wildlife conservation, which instead has been covered by guidelines issued by the Ministry of Environment and Forests â€“ guidelines that are self-contradictory as well as illegal. As per press reports the Ministry is trying to use these guidelines to deny rights in tiger reserves, which is utterly and brazenly criminal. Moreover, the key safeguards of the Act regarding consent of the community prior to resettlement, as well as the rehabilitation package, have been entirely ignored both in the Rules and in the MoEF guidelines. This again is in total violation of the Act.
As a final point, the Rules fail to deal with many of the procedural complexities of the Act. They provide no procedure for conversion of forest villages and unrecorded settlements into revenue villages, for exercising the right to rehabilitation after illegal eviction or forced displacement, for exercising the right to habitat, for penalising officers who violate the Act, or for development rights.
Finally, the Act's own problematic provisions remain entirely unaddressed, notwithstanding the promise of the Tribal Minister to Parliament to address these matters in the Rules and through amendments.
As said above, the notification is a victory and no small victory at that. Today the legal rights of forest dwellers stand enshrined in law. Yet at the same time, the government has sought to retain its powers over resources and people's lives. As we said at the time of the passage of the Act, this is both a victory and a betrayal.
The struggle for justice and democracy will continue.