The prime minister’s recent claim that his government does not favour crony capitalists is vacuous given how the Central Environment Ministry is at loggerheads with the Tribal Ministry to completely dilute the impact of the emancipatory Forest Rights Act of 2006. Meanwhile a petition by ‘conservation’ groups in the Supreme Court of India is currently challenging the constitutionality of the law itself
The Scheduled Tribes and Other Traditional Forest Dwellers (Recognition of Rights) Act (popularly called the Forest Rights Act), when it was enacted in 2006 brought in an important change to the way that India and government viewed the forest-dwelling individuals and communities of India.
The colonial laws of forest management like the Indian Forests Act, 1927 and laws which were brought in later by the government of independent India operated on one unquestioned premise, that the people living in the forests could not be trusted with the management of their surroundings. Forests, in India until the enactment of the Forest Rights Act, were the unquestioned fiefdom of the Forest Department. Home to some of the poorest and most isolated communities in India, the forests were sought to be managed not for the sake of people living harmoniously within these forests but with the aim of protecting the forests from human intervention.
While the aim was laudable, the actual management of the forests by the government resulted in a massive loot of forest resources and continued impoverishment of the tribals and other forest dwellers living in these forests. In fact, the continuing existence of the Naxalite insurgency within the tribal belt is a direct result of the mismanagement of the forests and victimisation of forest dwellers by an insensitive government.
What came about in 2006, through the Forest Rights Act, was recognition of the importance of the local community in the conservation of forests. This was an expression of trust in these local communities, as opposed to the local forest bureaucracies who had proven to be ineffective in either protecting the forests, the animals living in these forests or the humans inhabiting there.
The Forest Rights Act is aimed at providing tribal communities and individuals who are in occupation of forest land with formal recognition of their right to possess this land, to use and utilise forest resources in a suitable manner and to fell standing timber, subject to a limit of 75 trees per hectare, for developmental activities like building schools and hospitals. This is a law aimed at recognising the fact that many communities are used to life in the forest and these communities and their activities are actually an aid to forest conservation efforts.
This Act is now facing a constitutional test before the Supreme Court with some conservationist groups attacking the law for being anti-wildlife. The first challenge to the Act was filed by the Bombay Natural History Society which then voluntarily chose to withdraw the challenge. The BNHS withdrawal was borne out of the recognition of the fact that the initial propaganda against the Act was pernicious and had sought to create an impression that the Forest Rights Act would be the death of the Indian Forest. Many had bought into the propaganda, first circulated by Vanashakti, a conservation group, which actually ran television ads against the Forest Rights Act before its enactment.
After the enactment, implementation was, and has been slow, and this period was utilised by an assortment of conservationists, environmentalists and by ‘retired forest officers’ (who file a number of Petitions against the Act) to work up further fears about the impact of the Forest Rights Act.
The fear regarding the destruction of these forests, to put it simply, did not come about prompting the venerable Bombay Natural History Society to withdraw its challenge but other conservationist groups like Wildlife First and Nature Conservation Society have persisted. These groups have questioned the competence of Parliament in enacting the Forest Rights Act as they claim that land is a subject for legislation by the states and not the centre. This claim is incorrect because land does come under the State list, the issue of Forests is included in the