The Scheduled Tribes and Other Traditional Forest Dwellers (Recognition of Forest Rights) Act, 2006 (FRA), was enacted in 2007. It was meant to undo the “historic injustice to forest dwelling communities” and was meant to recognise pre-existing forest rights only as on December 13, 2005. The Act covers not just tribal populations but also ‘other forest dwellers’.
Only those actually occupying forest land as on December 13, 2005, are eligible to be granted rights as per this law. Further, people belonging to the Other Traditional Forest Dwellers (OTFD) category — non-tribals who form the bulk of the claimants — have to establish a continuous 75-year occupation for eligibility.
On February 13, 2019, the Supreme Court issued a landmark order to ensure the protection of forests that have been severely affected due to ineligible or bogus claimants under FRA. The order states that all persons whose claims have been rejected after following due process laid down in FRA, need to be evicted.
Under FRA, a detailed process is required to be followed for validating or rejecting any claim. The first layer of scrutiny is done by the gram sabha. No forest officer, wildlife or environmental NGO is part of this process. Neither is the ministry of environment and forests involved. If a claim is rejected by the gram sabha, the appeal lies with a committee held at the sub-divisional level. A further appeal can be made to a third committee chaired by the district collector. Importantly, there is no provision for appeal against the final order of this committee.
As per the September 2018 statement compiled by the ministry of tribal affairs based on data provided by the state governments, 42 lakh claims over forest lands, including within national parks, sanctuaries and other protected areas, were filed by tribals and OTFDs. Based on these claims, 18,89,835 titles have been granted over 72,23,132 hectares of forest land. These forests have been given mainly to individuals, as well as to communities in bits and pieces across the country. This has led not just to diversion of forest lands for agriculture but also in the fragmentation of forest areas, national parks and sanctuaries.
However, the Supreme Court has not examined the authenticity of these claims — neither the ones that have been accepted, nor the ones rejected. All that it has said is that those claimants who have been found ineligible after multiple scrutiny as provided under the FRA need to be removed.
Typically, in a village, landless labourers comprise the majority. They depend on the ‘common lands’ and adjacent forestlands for fuel, fodder, minor forest produce, etc, for their survival. If individual titles are granted on these lands, these poorest of the poor will lose an important asset on which they currently survive.
Studies carried out using satellite imagery have shown that areas that contained forests in 2006 have been systematically opened up for agriculture. However, the Supreme Court has ignored this, and has only required state governments to remove those whose claims have been rejected.
The apex court also directed that where the verification process is pending, the concerned state shall do the needful within four months from the day of its order, and the latter will have to submit their reports to the court. The Forest Survey of India (FSI) has also been asked to carry out a satellite survey and place on record encroachment positions, and also state the positions after the evictions, as far as possible.
This order has become embroiled in politics. But at the end of the day, we must decide whether we can continue to destroy our forests. This is not an issue of ‘tigers vs tribals’. It’s an issue of how we can guarantee water security for 125 million of our citizens. For, without forests, there will be no water.
The writer is executive trustee, Conservation Action Trust