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Is the Tribal Ministry Trying to Sabotage Community Forest Rights Again?

Since the passage of the Forest Rights Act in 2006, powerful forces – forest officials in particular – have been doing their best to sabotage the rights of tribals and forest dwellers. Under the Modi government this sabotage has been reaching new heights, including trying to bypass the law by instituting parallel regimes, undercutting the law in the Supreme Court and facilitating grabbing of tribals’ resources. Now the Ministry of Tribal Affairs seems to be at it again.

Among the most powerful provisions of the Forest Rights Act is its recognition of forest dwellers’ right to manage, protect and conserve their “community forest resources” (CFR). This was the first time in Indian history that ordinary citizens have been given a legal power to protect the environment. Moreover, under the law, in every village where there are forest dwellers, under the law, it is mandatory to record and recognise community forest resource rights. But in spite of this legal provision, in most of the country, CFR rights have not been recognised. A 2015 analysis found that only 1.2 percent of the potential CFR areas in the country had been recognised – and the situation has hardly changed since.

As far back as April 2015, the Ministry had issued binding directions to all authorities on CFRs. These guidelines mandated that CFRs should be recorded as a new category of forests, that villages had the right to make their own plans in their own formats and to access funds for the same, and even provided that state governments could approach the Ministry for funds if required for this purpose.

Perhaps precisely because they were so comprehensive, these guidelines were never implemented. Now, in 2020, instead of asking why its own binding orders were ignored, the Ministry set up another committee in February to “examine and recommend model guidelines for conservation,management and sustainable use of community forest resources (CFR Guidelines) under FRA.” This 15 member committee, chaired by Dr NC Saxena, also has forest officials among its members.

At best this is an exercise in bureaucratic wheel spinning. At worst, it is an attempt to sabotage this powerful provision by introducing procedural requirements that will make it impossible for communities to actually manage their forests. In either case, it is a betrayal of tribals and forest dwellers.

Hence we call upon the Ministry to:

(a) scrap this committee;
(b) list out all habitations in the country where FRA is applicable;
(c) organise records of the forests including maps and data, and hand them over to the concerned Gram Sabhas as per the Rules;
(d) ensure that all the eligible habitations are provided the necessary training and tools to generate and process CFR claims, also as required by the Rules;
(d) to direct state governments to constitute CFR management committee and operationalise CFR management on the basis of the 2015 guidelines.