Hearing a petition today filed by a small group of wildlife NGOs, the Supreme Court today declined to hold that the historic Forest Rights Act of 2006 was “beyond the legislative competence” of Parliament to pass. The petitioners had claimed before the court that this law is “essentially a land distribution scheme” and hence fell within the jurisdiction of the State governments and not the Central Parliament. After hearing all parties at length on this claim, the Court did not endorse this notion and asked the petitioners to continue with their other arguments.
The petitioners in this case do not represent the views of most wildlife conservationists, who support the recognition of the rights of forest dwellers and ensuring that they can protect and manage their forests. Indeed, just six months ago, more than twenty Indian wildlife experts and forty international organisations had written to the Environment Ministry asking it to stop violating this law and stating that “disregarding the Forest Rights Act or undermining it will greatly damage environmental protection in the country.”
The petitioners in this case instead want to restore the rule of the Forest Department, with all its colonial powers, by using a technical Constitutional argument. The court has not endorsed this backdoor attempt to attack people’s rights. The case will now proceed on the other claims of the petitioners, but we are confident that these too will be defeated.
Case Details: Wildlife First and Ors. vs. Union of India and Ors. (WP 109 / 2008), tagged with several related writ petitions and being heard by Justices Chelameswar, Sapre and Roy. Counsel for petitioners is Senior Advocate Shyam Diwan; for the Union of India is Additional Solicitor General and Senior Advocate PS Narasimha; and for several impleaded tribals and forest dwellers’ groups, Senior Advocate Chander Uday Singh appeared. See here for more details on these cases.
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.
After raping two adivasi women last week, police in Gadchiroli district, Maharashtra, have engaged in a spiral of atrocities. They have now abducted five people yesterday, including the victims, and are holding them at an undisclosed location. Phone numbers for details and for officials are at the end of this message.
Yesterday evening (January 28th, 2017) at 4:30 pm, two adivasi women who had been raped by the police and their supporters Shila Gota and Sainu Gota were abducted from the office of Nagpur High Court lawyer Nihalsingh Rathod. The police claimed to come from Bardi police station. They did not explain why they were detaining these people and refused to answer questions from the lawyers about what they were charged with (hence, this was an abduction, not an arrest as per law). At 7:40 pm the police returned again and detained activist Mangesh Holi. Till date it is not clear where any of these people are being held or why.
On January 20th, 2017, two women from Gonawara village of Bande block in Chhattisgarh were traveling to Nayatala village (Etapalli, Maharashtra) to see relatives. They were blocked by the Maharashtra Police near Todgatta village and held overnight. In the morning of the 21st they were taken to Naytala, where they were released after the villagers confirmed their identity. But the badly frightened women then told their relatives that they had been sexually assaulted by the police. When the villagers demanded to know what had happened the police battalion beat them up and again seized the two women. When the villagers followed and demanded to know where they were being held the police initially denied that they had ever detained them. After protests the police finally issued a statement saying they had detained the women “for security reasons.” The women were then taken to the district hospital for a medical checkup on the 22nd, but their relatives were barred from meeting them. After repeated protests, the women were finally released on the evening of January 26th after being subjected to further atrocities. They were then again abducted yesterday from the office of the lawyer who was assisting them.
The people of over 70 villages in this region have passed resolutions against iron ore mining and have been struggling for their rights under the Forest Rights Act and against illegal mining. For this reason the police repression in the area has massively increased recently.
Please call the concerned officials and ask to know what has happened to those abducted:
District Collector, Gadchiroli: 07132222001, 07798977831
Superintendent of Police, Gadchiroli: 08652573333, 07132222151
Reporters interested in details of yesterday’s incidents and the atrocities inflicted on these women can contact Adv. Nihalsingh Rathod at 09702136264, 09403253160.
Campaign for Survival and Dignity
NB: This statement has now been endorsed by 40 international conservation organisations and experts. See here for their statement.
On October 6th, 2016, a group of wildlife scientists and conservationists wrote to the Minister of Environment and Forests, calling upon him to ensure that the Forest Rights Act is respected by the Ministry. They pointed out that “disregarding the Forest Rights Act or undermining it will greatly damage environmental protection in the country.”
Open letter to:
Shri Anil Madhav Dave
Minister of State, Ministry of Environment, Forests and Climate Change
Indira Paryavaran Bhavan, Jor Bagh Road
Aliganj, New Delhi- 110 003
Date: 6th October, 2016
Sub: Request to ensure that the FRA is implemented and its integrity upheld – as a vital measure for conservation
We are conservation organisations and ecological scientists working across India. We are disturbed by recent reports that the Environment Ministry is not prioritising the Forest Rights Act in its policy making and may be acting in ways that are not in consonance with that law. As the mandate of the Ministry is to ensure protection of the environment, we hope you will take cognizance of the following points that clearly show that disregarding the Forest Rights Act or undermining it will greatly damage environmental protection in the country. Here are our views on the value of the FRA:
The FRA strengthens conservation through globally recognized inclusive approaches:
The Forest Rights Act stands proudly along with a few other conservation legislations in the country as the only line of defense from wanton destruction of natural treasures of the country. The FRA is a significant step forward for conservation and environmental protection in India. For decades now, international conservation best practice has recognised that sustainable and effective protection of sensitive ecosystems requires the democratic involvement of those who live in and depend on those ecosystems (both terrestrial and marine) – as legally empowered rights holders. The International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) and the World Wildlife Fund (WWF) have formally recognised this in their policy documents on protection of ecosystems. The international community as a whole has recognised this in the Convention on Biodiversity (CBD), including in its Programme of Work on Protected Areas (PoWPA). Old models built around removing and excluding local communities have been shown to result in impoverishment of people while failing to protect the environment effectively (instead encouraging corruption and abuse of power). The Global Environment Outlook Report 5, mentions clearly, that world over while the number of protected areas has gone up the actual biodiversity has only decreased. One of the important reasons identified for this decrease in biodiversity has been lack of involvement of local people in governance and management of protected areas. Both academic literature and international policy documents demonstrate this in numerous contexts. Indian experiences as diverse as Uttarakhand’s Van Panchayats, community forest management in Odisha; Recognition of rights and subsequent development of people’s tiger conservation plan in BR Hills Tiger Reserve in Karnataka; Collective efforts of the administration, civil society and local people to recognise rights and work towards a co-existence plan in Simlipal Tiger Reserve in Odisha, Conservation of forests and wildlife after recognition of CFR rights, including by setting aside no go zones for them in villages such as Pachgaon and Nayakheda in Maharashtra; and continuation of effective forest management by villages such as Mendha Lekha, among many others provide us with a wealth of local knowledge and examples to draw upon.
The FRA is a vital tool for community-based conservation movements:
The FRA is not only to be viewed as a social justice measure, but also as a tool to democratize environmental decision making and forest governance in India. It empowers forest communities to be a part of the decision making process, and therefore encourages a bottom up approach to natural resource governance in India. Across the world, there is growing evidence that involving local communities in environmental governance and protection plans promotes decisions that are environmentally sound. Yet government policy has focused solely on criminalising local communities and strengthening the powers of forest officials – a model that has either failed in many contexts or is increasingly being questioned as flawed, counter-productive and short-sighted. The Forest Rights Act represents for the first time, that Indian environmental policy has sought to incorporate these principles of respect for rights (including right to use, manage and conserve), transparency and accountability, in a clear legal framework. After the passage of the Act, communities across the country have also used it as an instrument of conservation, such as through stopping coupe felling in north Bengal, preventing wanton destruction of forests for private profit in Odisha, and as mentioned above sustainably using and conserving forests and biodiversity in Maharashtra, Odisha and elsewhere.
Wilful misinterpretation of the FRA legislation:
Many foresters mistakenly believe that the FRA will cause forest loss. Some have made simplistic calculations like number of Adivasis multiplied by 4 ha given equals the amount of forest area that will be lost. It must be noted that neither is 4 ha the amount to be ‘handed out’ (it is only the upper bound), nor is it is “giving land” to all Adivasis. The Act only provides for all forest-dwellers whose historical residence and dependence over a particular forest land has not been recognized. Most important, individual forest rights correspond to historically settled or cultivated land, which in reality does not contain any forest cover anyway. So effectively implementing the individual rights provisions does not really involve any loss of actual forest cover.
Critics of the Act argue that there is a potential for misuse by vested interests. We do not support any misuse of the Act. However, that is not a valid ground for calls for scrapping or failing to implement an important Act. Any law including the Wild Life (Protection) Act has the potential for misuse and flawed implementation, but that does not mean that the law itself is wrong/or at fault.
In contrast, eviction drives and harassment of legitimate rights holders have led to a situation of continuous conflict in forest areas – which is hardly conducive to conservation.
In this context we are disturbed to find the Environment Ministry continuing to make policy in a manner that does not seem to respect this law or its mandate. Some recent examples include the laws and policies such as Compensatory Afforestation Fund Act and Wildlife Action Plan 2017-31, which make no reference to the Forest Rights Act and rights of local communities; and reported moves to bypass the need for local communities’ consent before diverting forests. Such steps increase the likelihood of maladministration, abuse of power against local forest dwellers, ecologically unfriendly and destructive policies, and the use of plantations as some kind of panacea for all forms of forest destruction. We see this as a failure to fulfil the Environment Ministry’s primary mandate. We call upon you to, as a conservation measure, ensure that respect for and implementation of the Forest Rights Act becomes one of the top priorities of your Ministry and of the country’s forest bureaucracy. We hope that steps in this direction can be taken.
Dr. Nitin Rai, Ecologist, ATREE, Bangalore
Dr. Ravi Chellam, Ph.D., Executive Director, Greenpeace India
Dr. Sharachchandra Lele, Environmental Researcher and Member, MoEF-MoTA Joint Committee on FRA
Ashish Kothari, Kalpavriksh, Pune
Neema Pathak Broome, Kalpavriksh, Pune
Dr. Aparna Watve, Assistant Professor, Tata Institute of Social Sciences
Janaki Lenin, Conservation Journalist and Writer, Tamil Nadu
Dr. Aparajita Datta, Scientist, Nature Conservation Foundation
Dr. T.R. Shankar Raman, Scientist, Nature Conservation Foundation
Dr. Divya Mudappa, Scientist, Nature Conservation Foundation
Dr. M.D. Madhusudan, Scientist, Nature Conservation Foundation
Dr. Charudutt Mishra, Scientist, Nature Conservation Foundation
Priya Pillai, Greenpeace India
Giri Rao, Vasundhara, Odisha
Tushar Dash, Vasundhara, Odisha
Aarthi Sridhar, Dakshin Foundation
Dr. Kartik Shankar, Dakshin Foundation
Marianne Manuel, Dakshin Foundation
Ananya Rao, Dakshin Foundation
Dr. Harini Nagendra, ecologist, Bangalore
Dr. Prashanth N S, Faculty & Tribal Health and Development Researcher, Institute of Public Health, Bangalore
Kalyan Varma, Associate and environmental photographer, Nature Conservation Foundation
Around four hundred participants from Chhatisgarh, Madhya Pradesh, Gujarat, Rajasthan, Jharkhand, Maharashtra, Andhra Pradesh, Karnataka, and Himachal Pradesh joined the CSD national convention in Bhubaneshwar on September 28th. They were joined by leaders and activists of struggle groups in Odisha as well. The following key demands were raised at the Convention:
Major Demands From the Central Govt.
- Ensure the Authority and Power of the Gram Sabha recognised under Forest Rights Act, 2006 in the Rules to be framed under CAMPA Fund Act, 2016. Ensure that the gram sabha would be the decision maker in case of plantation or any activities to be carried using CAMPA fund within the Community Forest Resource Area.
- Halt the JFM Resolution, 1990 and respect the Gram Sabha as the “authority” for protecting the forest.
- Halt illegal diversion of forest land without gram sabha consent and prosecute the officials responsible.
- Respect the power of the gram sabha in all laws on land acquisition and forests. All planning, change of use and activities in forests should be subject to the powers of the gram sabha.
Major Demands From the Govt. of Odisha
- Respect the Gram Sabha as the authority of the village duly recognised under Forest Rights Act, 2006.
- Identify hundreds of forest and un-surveyed villages, form FRC recognising Gram Sabha there and convert them into Revenue Villages.
- Help gram sabhas to demarcate forest land recognised under individual Forest Rights Act in the State.
- Recognised the IFR rights of the OTFDs duly recommended and approved by Gram Sabhas.
- Produce village wise list of the IFR title to ascertain no of villages covered under Forest Rights Act, 2006 till date.
- Engage in a widespread awareness campaign on FRA specially on Community Forest rights across the State.
- Stop giving false information on the CFR rights recognised in State and validate them with ground realities.
- Stop evicting tribals and forest dwellers from their habitats and land under cultivation though Tiger Projects and plantation. Stop relocation of communities from Similipal Tiger Reserve.
- Dissolve all Vana Suraskhya Samiti(VSS)/EDC/Ama Jungle Yojana(AJY) violating Forest Rights Act.
- Recognise PTG rights over their habitat duly recognised under FRA.
- Recognise ownership rights over Minor Forest Produce and stop taking royalty on kendu leaf and bamboo.
- Make correction and consolidation of Record of Rights(RoR) of the forest land recognised under IFR and CFR in the State.
- Drop all forest cases filed against tribals and forest dwellers after the enactment of FRA, 2006.
In July of this year, Parliament passed the Compensatory Afforestation Fund Act.
Afforestation sounds like a good thing, but in practice this law would transfer huge amounts of money to forest officials with little oversight on whether they use that money for genuinely ecologically friendly activities – and with no oversight at all on whether that money is used to grab common and individual lands that belong to people.
Despite concerted efforts by the opposition to address these issues when the bill was passed, the government managed to fob them off with a simple assurance that it would “deal with these matters in the Rules” (the separate procedures for implementation of the law).
Now, hundreds of villages across India have called on Environment Minister Anil Dave to live up to his promise. The letters have been sent by:
- 54 villages in Tamil Nadu, along with an alliance of 12 organisations
- over 100 villages in three districts in Jharkhand, with more in process
- 165 villages in Maharashtra
- 14 block level confederations from five districts in Rajasthan
- 46 villages in Uttarakhand
The letters point out that if the Environment Minister is serious about his assurance, he must ensure that:
- No work under this Act should be undertaken without the informed consent of the gram sabhas whose members use the lands affected by the project, or whose customary boundaries include that land. This consent should be taken with a minimum of 50% quorum and should take place at the village / hamlet level, regardless of whether the land is revenue land or forest land. This is the bare minimum required for any genuine participation.
- No work under this Act should involve lands used (individually or in common) or occupied by Dalits, adivasis, small farmers, etc.
- Funds under this Act should be under the control of the gram sabha and not just of the officials.
- On forest land, no work should be undertaken under this Act unless the implementation of the Forest Rights Act is complete in the area and all villages therein have been given their titles to community forest resource rights (as the law requires for every village with forest dwellers).
Will the Modi government ignore the voice of hundreds of villages across India, and persist in its desire to violate the law?
Campaign for Survival and Dignity
Today was a black day for forest dwellers’ rights.
The Rajya Sabha has passed the Compensatory Afforestation Fund Bill, 2016. This Bill essentially gives carte blanche to forest officials to spend gigantic amounts of money (over 40,000 crores) without any accountability to the people whose forests, lands and lives will be damaged or destroyed by their activities.
The Congress moved an amendment (see here for the text) that would have been the bare minimum necessary to protect the rights of millions of people – our country’s poorest communities.
The government said we won’t do any of that. We respect forest rights so much, we’ll make an Act that doesn’t say a single word about them. Our officials will continue to facilitate corporates grabbing people’s forest rights. We’ll just give you a paper assurance that we “will deal with it in the Rules.” Much of the opposition lined up for this sham; the Congress dithered and flip-flopped on its own amendment. And, driven by the greed of State and Central bureaucracies, the Bill was passed.
But this issue will not be settled with this. For 150 years the forest dwellers of this country have fought a criminal and oppressive colonial system for their rights. It was their democratic struggle that resulted in the Forest Rights Act. It is their struggle that will halt the forest bureaucracy in its tracks – no matter how much the NDA government tries to bend over backwards to please its bureaucrat allies and its corporate masters. The Environment Ministry will be held to its assurance today.
Campaign for Survival and Dignity