Rights of Forest Dwellers: RSTV - In Depth

This article shares the details of discussion held in Rajya Sabha TV; concerning the Rights of Forests Dwellers. It deals with issues pertaining to Forests Rights Act, decision of Ministry of Tribal Welfare, Supreme Court directives, steps taken by Government of India, and issues faced by tribals.

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Anchor: Teena Jha


Larger Background

  1. The Scheduled Tribes and Other Traditional Forest Dwellers (Recognition of Forest Rights) Act, 2006, was enacted to recognize and vest the forest rights and occupation of forest land in forest dwelling Scheduled Tribes and other traditional forest dwellers, who have been residing in such forests for generations, but whose rights could not be recorded.
  2. This Act not only recognizes the rights to hold and live in the forest land under the individual or common occupation for habitation or for self-cultivation for livelihood, but also grants several other rights to ensure their control over forest resources which, inter-alia, include right of ownership, access to collect, use and dispose of minor forest produce, community rights such as nistar; habitat rights for primitive tribal groups and pre-agricultural communities; right to protect, regenerate or conserve or manage any community forest resource which they have been traditionally protecting and conserving for sustainable use.
  3. The Act also provides for diversion of forest land for public utility facilities managed by the Government, such as schools, dispensaries, fair price shops, electricity and telecommunication lines, water tanks, etc. with the recommendation of Gram Sabhas.
  4. In addition, several schemes have been implemented by the Ministry of Tribal Affairs for the benefit of tribal people, including those in the forest areas such as “Mechanism for marketing of Minor Forest Produce (MFP) through Minimum Support Price (MSP) and development of Value Chain for MFP”.
  5. Funds are released out of Special Central Assistance to Tribal Sub Plan for infrastructure work relating to basic services and facilities viz. approach roads, healthcare, primary education, minor irrigation, rainwater harvesting, drinking water, sanitation, community halls, etc. for development of forest villages.
  6. Under Section 3(1)(h) of the Scheduled Tribes and Other Traditional Forest Dwellers (Recognition of Forest Rights) Act, 2006, the rights of settlement and conversion of all forest villages, old habitations, un-surveyed villages and other villages in forest, whether recorded, notified, or not, into revenue villages have been recognized as one of the forest rights of forest dwelling Scheduled Tribes and other traditional forest dwellers on all forest lands.
  7. As per the provisions of the Act and the rules framed thereunder, the forest right related to conversion of forest villages into revenue villages is to be adjudicated by the Gram Sabha, Sub-Divisional Level Committee and the District Level Committee as per the laid down procedure, like any other forest right specified in the Act.

Analysis

A Look at a Few Highlights

  1. India’s forests are home to lakhs of people, including the many Scheduled Tribes, who live in or near forest areas of the country.
  2. In 2006, the Forest Rights Act was passed to give legal rights to these forest dwellers, their homes, lands and livelihoods.
  3. The Act is crucial to the rights of millions of tribals and other forest dwellers spread across multiple states of our country, as it provides for the restitution of deprived forest rights.
  4. But several wildlife groups say the Act has encouraged further encroachment on the already battered forest lands.
  5. Challenging the constitutional validity of the Forest Rights Act, they filed several petitions in the apex court in 2008.
  6. In the long drawn case, the Supreme Court on February 13th, 2019 directed 21 states to evict illegal forest dwellers whose claims over the land have been rejected by the authorities.
  7. The eviction order could have affected 11.8 lakh forest dwellers residing in different parts of the country.
  8. However, following the Centre’s appeal, the apex court has put on hold the eviction order passed on 13th February, 2019.
  9. This edition of In-Depth will look at the eviction order of the Supreme Court and what is the centre’s contention on the issue.
  10. We will also analyse the Forest Rights Act of 2006, its significance, and the challenges being faced by Forest Dwellers in the country.

Why in the News?

  1. Dealing with a batch of petitions, challenging the validity of the Forest Rights Act, the Supreme Court on 13th February, 2019, directed 21 states to appraise it about the action taken by them over the eviction of tribals and forest dwellers whose claims have been rejected.
  2. The court said, once the orders of eviction have been passed, the eviction ought to have taken place.
  3. The order was bound to affect nearly 12 lakh people residing in or near forest lands.
  4. However, with the Ministry of Tribal Affairs seeking a modification of the order, the apex court has agreed to put on hold its eviction order.

What was the February 13th, 2019 order of the Supreme Court and what did the Centre say in its plea ?

In a major reprieve for around 12 lakh forest dwellers and tribals. The Supreme Court stayed its February 13th, 2019 order that could have resulted in their forcible eviction from forest lands. A two-judge bench comprising of Justices Arun Mishra and Navin Sinha, directed state Governments to file an affidavit, giving details about the process adopted in rejecting the claims of forest dwelling scheduled tribes and other traditional forest dwellers.

  • 17 States, namely Andhra Pradesh, Assam, Bihar, Chattisgarh, Jharkhand, Karnataka, Kerala, Madhya Pradesh, Maharashtra, Odisha, Rajasthan, Tamil Nadu, Telangana, Tripura, Uttarakhand, Uttar Pradesh, and West Bengal submitted status reports on rejection of claims of Forest Dwelling Scheduled Tribes and Other Traditional Forest Dwellers.
    1. Based on these reports, a three-judge bench of the Supreme Court directed the Chief Secretaries of these states on 13th February, 2019 to ensure the eviction of these people from forest lands whose claims under the Forest Rights Act, 2006 have been rejected on or before July 24th, 2019.
    2. The eviction order of the Supreme Court drew flak from tribal rights groups and activists.  
    3. Some experts opine that as per international law, there is a principle, whereby whoever occupies a land that is unclaimed would be the owner of that land. They argue that this was one of the principles that was recognized when the Government of the day took up the issue of bringing in a legislation to remove a sense of alienation amongst the Scheduled Tribes and other forest dwellers of the nation.
  • It is important to note that the Scheduled Tribes have been the first occupants of the unclaimed forest, and they have been depending on it for their livelihood.

Action Taken by the Ministry of Tribal Affairs

  1. On 27th February, 2019, the Ministry of Tribal Affairs moved the Supreme Court, seeking an urgent hearing. In its plea, the Ministry sought a modification of the previous order.
  2. The Ministry also urged the Supreme Court to direct states to file detailed affidavits on procedure followed while examining claims and details regarding rejection.
  3. Until this was done, the eviction of forest dwelling scheduled tribes and other traditional forest dwellers, was to be put on hold.    
  4. The Ministry also said that after examining the affidavits filed by the state governments, it could not ascertain if the rejection orders were passed after following due process and whether appeal mechanisms had been exhausted.
  5. The Centre further added that it has been periodically monitoring the implementation of the Forest Rights Act by state governments.
  6. The High rate of rejection of claims is mostly due to a wrong interpretation of the Forest Rights Act.
  7. The Ministry also underlined the lack of awareness about filing claims among the Gram Sabhas.  
  8. In many cases, the reasons for rejection was not communicated to the claimants.
  9. The Ministry of Tribal Affairs contended that as Forest Dwellers are poor and illiterate, it was difficult to substantiate their claims before the competent authorities.
  10. The apex court order on the 13th of February, 2019, came in a case challenging the constitutional validity of the Forest Rights Act of 2006. A number of petitions were filed by an NGO named, ‘Wildlife First’, and a few retried forest officials, who argued that the Forest Rights Act has led to deforestation and encroachments of forest lands. The petitioners sought recovery of forest land from the possession of forest dwellers. The case has been going on in the Supreme Court since March 2008, and the next hearing will take place on the 10th of July, 2019.

Forest Rights Act, 2006: A Perspective

The Forest Rights Act, 2006, was enacted to protect the rights of forest dwelling communities to land and other resources of the forest which are essential for their livelihood.

The Forest Rights Act, 2006 also gives the forest dwellers rights to use minor forest produce along with community rights.

The Forest  Rights holders are also bound to protect and conserve biodiversity, wildlife as well as forest resources of the area.

  1. The Scheduled Tribes and other Traditional Forest Dwellers (Recognition of Forest Rights) Act, 2006, was passed on the 18th of December, 2006. This Act is also known as the Forest Rights Act.
  2. This act was enacted to recognize and vest forest rights and occupation of forest land for scheduled tribes and other traditional forest dwellers.
  3. These people have been residing in forests for generations, but unfortunately, their rights have not been recorded.
  4. The Act provides the right to hold and live in forest land for habitation or for self-cultivation for livelihood by a member or members of a Forest Dwelling Scheduled Tribe (FDSTs) or Other Traditional Forest Dwellers (OTFDs).
  5. It gives the right of ownership, access to collect, use and dispose of minor forest produce which has been traditionally collected within or outside village boundaries.
  6. The act also provides for community rights and rights of entitlement such as fish and other products of water bodies, etc.
  7. Habitat rights for primitive tribal groups and pre-agricultural communities.
  8. Right to Protect, regenerate or conserve any community forest resource, which they have been traditionally protecting and conserving for sustainable use.
  9. Right to in-situ rehabilitation in cases of illegal eviction or displacement
  10. Rights of settlement and conversion of all forest villages, old habitation, etc. into revenue villages.
  11. However, conversion of forest villages into revenue villages is to be adjudicated by the Gram Sabha Sub-divisional level committee and the District Level Committee as per the procedure.

Who are Forest Dwellers

  1. The Act defines its beneficiaries as ‘Forest Dwelling Scheduled Tribes’, which means the members of the Scheduled Tribes who primarily reside in forests and depend on them for livelihood needs.
  2. ‘Other Traditional Forest Dwellers’  refers to any person who has for at least three generations prior to December 13th, 2005, primarily resided in forests and who depend on them for livelihood.
  3. It is important to note that anyone who is dwelling in forests isn’t a traditional forest dweller.  
  4. Along with the rights, the holders of forest rights also have certain duties to perform.

Duties of the Holders of Forest Rights  

  1. They have to protect the wildlife, forest  and biodiversity.
  2. They have to ensure that the habitat of forest dwelling scheduled tribes and other traditional forest dwellers is preserved from any form of destructive practices affecting their cultural and natural heritage.
  3. Ensure that the decisions taken in the Gram Sabha to regulate access to community forest resources and stop any activity which adversely affects wild animals, forests, and biodiversity are complied with.
  4. The act also provides for a diversion of forest land for public utility facilities managed by the government like schools, dispensaries, fair price shops, electricity and telecommunication lines, water tanks, etc. with the recommendation of the Gram Sabhas.
  5. However, any of these facilities should not involve the felling of more than 75 trees per hectare.

A Few More Perspectives

The tribal situation in India presents a varied picture. Some areas have high tribal concentration, while in other areas, the tribals form only a small portion of the total population. There are several challenges which the community has been facing, but the government has been giving a greater emphasis to the development of tribal population and the area.

It is important to note the challenges faced by tribals and forest dwellers along with the steps being undertaken by the Government.

  1. The Supreme Court’s stay on its earlier order has once again focussed attention on the challenges faced by tribals in India. Issues of tribal development, integration, and autonomy, have confronted Indian society right from the British rule.
  2. The complex nature of the tribal population has made their integration and autonomy, even more difficult. Autonomy allows development policies to be shaped to help tribal culture and lifestyle. However, at the same time, leaving the tribals in their own state only deepens the divide between the mainstream and the tribals.
  3. If tribals are integrated into the mainstream, their own needs and desires are neglected. Also, exploitation of forests would get accelerated as most of the mineral resources fall in forest and tribal areas.
  4. Tribal lands can get rapidly acquired for new mining and infrastructure projects.  

Issues Faced By Tribals

  1. Small and uneconomical landholdings that give less yield and keep them chronically indebted.
  2. The Tribals mostly follow simple occupations based on simple technology.
  3. Most of their occupations fall into the primary occupations like hunting, gathering, and agriculture. Their technology belongs to the most primitive kind.
  4. Only a small percentage of the tribal populations participate in secondary and tertiary sectors.
  5. Besides this, the literacy rates among the tribal populations are very low.
  6. After independence, many steel plants, power projects and large dams came up in tribal inhabited areas.
  7. Mining activities were also accelerated in tribal areas.
  8. Acquisition of tribal land for these projects led to large scale displacement of the tribal population.
  9. Because of economic backwardness, tribals face health problems, like malaria, cholera, tuberculosis, diarrhoea, and jaundice.
  10. There are also problems such as tribal populations falling prey to malnutrition, iron deficiency, anaemia, high infant mortality rates, low levels of life expectancy, among others.
  11. Degradation of the natural environment, particularly through the destruction of forests, and a rapidly shrinking resource base, has also harmed tribal women.
  12. Further, extinction of tribal dialects, and languages indicate an erosion of tribal identity in certain areas.

It is important to note that some areas of our country have a high tribal concentration, while in other areas, the tribals form only a small portion of the total population.

Steps taken by the Government

  1. The Constitution of India provides for the special provisions relating to Scheduled Tribes.
  2. Article 342 of the Constitution of India lays down that the President of India may specify the tribes or tribal communities or part of or groups within tribes or tribal communities or parts which shall be deemed Scheduled Tribes.
  3. Article 164 of the Constitution of India provides for a Ministry of Tribal Welfare in each of the State of Bihar, Madhya Pradesh, and Odisha which have large concentrations of Scheduled Tribes population.
  4. Article 244 of the Constitution of India provides a fifth Schedule in the Constitution of India for incorporating provisions for the administration of Scheduled Areas and Tribes of the States which have sizeable tribal population.
  5. The Constitution of India prescribes protection and safeguards for Scheduled Tribes to promote their educational and economic interests.
  6. Under Article 330 and 332 of the Indian Constitution, seats have been reserved for Scheduled Tribes in Lok Sabha and state Vidhan Sabhas.
  7. The Government has also made provisions for their adequate representation in the services.
  8. ‘Scheduled Areas’ have been declared in the States of Andhra Pradesh, Bihar, Gujarat, Madhya Pradesh, Maharashtra, Odisha, Himachal Pradesh and Rajasthan.
  9. The Scheme of administration of Scheduled Areas under the Fifth Schedule visualises a division of responsibility between the State and Union Governments.
  10. The Fifth Schedule of the Constitution of India provides for the setting up of Tribes’ Advisory Council in each of the States having Scheduled Areas.
  11. Under Article 338 of the Constitution of India, a Commissioner has been appointed  by the President of India to investigate all matters relating to the safeguards for Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes, and to report to the President on the working of these safeguards.
  12. Also, measures to provide educational facilities have been taken by the Government.  
  13. Emphasis is being laid on vocational and technical training.
  14. The Central Government awards scholarships to deserving students for higher studies in foreign countries.
  15. Tribal research institutes, which undertake intensive studies of tribal arts, culture, and customs, have been setup in Bihar, Madhya Pradesh, Odisha, Rajasthan, and West Bengal.

 

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