The Forest Rights Act

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In Budget and Orders, NDA Govt Attacks Incomes, Rights of Forest Dwellers Again


Since it came to power the BJP government at the Centre has consistently tried to attack the livelihoods and rights of forest dwellers and tribals. Recently, it has intensified its assault:

  • Destroying the MSP for MFP scheme, which could have boosted the income of millions of people: In 2013, the UPA introduced a scheme to provide a minimum support price for minor forest produce. This produce constitutes more than half of the income of many forest dwelling communities, especially the desperately oppressed adivasis of central India. But whereas funds for this purpose were released to six States in 2013-2014, in 2014 – 2015 practically all the money in the fund was given to Chhattisgarh alone (excepting a miniscule allocation to Jharkhand). In 2014-2015, 317 crores was allocated for this scheme; 307 crores in 2015-2016; 158 crores in 2016 – 2017; and only 100 crores in 2017 – 2018 (see here). Even more striking, only three crores was actually spent in 2016 – 2017 – effectively finishing off this scheme.
  • Making community forest management impossible: Documents obtained through RTI show that the Ministry of Environment and Forests is now working on a “guideline for management of community forest resources”, along with the Ministry of Tribal Affairs. This might seem like a good thing, since for the first time, the Ministry is actually acknowledging that people have statutory rights over their forests. But the actual guideline belies any such hope. Despite being fully 23 pages long (a scanned copy is here), it has no mechanism by which people can hold state agencies accountable to enforce and implement their decisions regarding management of their forests. Meanwhile, chapter 4 of the guideline requires communities to first undertake a survey exercise so extensive that it would make a university department struggle for staff. Villagers are expected to list the species of plants and trees present, provide georeferenced maps, record tree cover and the legal status of forest lands, the texture and depth of soil, the status of stream flow during different months – and this is just the start (see Chapter 4 and Appendix 1 of the draft guideline). Since no gram sabha can conceivably complete such a survey, the Forest Department will cite this guideline to act as if no “appropriate” plan exists; and we will be back to square one. While there has been correspondence between the Ministry of Tribal Affairs and the Environment Ministry on this guideline, these fundamental issues appear to be very much on the cards.

Both of these steps are very much in line with the way this government has constantly tried to extend Bureaucrat Raj in India’s forests. Since the BJP does not have the political courage – or the strength – to state that this is its actual goal, it has been undercutting people’s legal rights by two strategies. The first is gross, continouous violation of the law in order to illegally favour corporates. The second is the creation of new, parallel structures of forest management that ignore the existence of the Forest Rights Act. These include giving private companies control over forests; the introduction of “village forest rules” in BJP ruled states that impose Forest Department control on people’s forests; and, most glaringly, the passage of the Compensatory Afforestation Fund Act, which threatens to expropriate millions of people and which does not have a single word about forest rights.

Meanwhile, till date, less than 3% of the land over which communities have rights has been recognised. This is the real conflict: between democratic control and protection of forests and other natural resources, on the one hand, and a rapacious bureaucracy backed by a vicious corporate assault on the other. In this context, the NDA government’s intentions are clear as day.