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The Forest Rights Act 2006 is "not relevant" for Arunachal Pradesh, believes state government

By Ashok Shrimali*
The Scheduled Tribes and Other Traditional Forest Dwellers (Recognition of Forest Rights) Act 2006 (FRA 2006 in short) was passed by the Indian Parliament in December 2006. This is the first time in the history of the post independent India that a Government (the UPA Government) brought in a forest related legislation to recognize and vest the forest rights and occupation in forest land in forest dwelling Scheduled Tribes and other traditional forest dwellers who have been residing in such forests for generations but whose rights were not recorded.

The Preamble to the FRA 2006 recognises that the State under the British Colonial Empire, appropriated the rights of the forest people when it says, “the forest rights on ancestral lands and their habitat were not adequately recognised in the consolidation of State forests during the colonial period as well as in independent India resulting in historical injustice to the forest dwelling Scheduled Tribes and other traditional forest dwellers who are integral to the very survival and sustainability of the forest ecosystem”.

How empowering is the Act?
Since the State appropriation of the forests in colonial India, the control of the forest people over their own forests and rights to govern their own forests were taken away by the State by the colonial Indian Forest Act. A forest bureaucracy and the forest department were instituted to manage the Indian forests and legitimate tenurial and access rights were severely curtailed. The post independent forest legislations such as the Wildlife Protection Act, 1972 and the Forest Conservation Act, 1980 in the name of protecting the wildlife and the destruction and diversion of forests, actually, turned the forest people in to criminals and encroachers.
The forest people not only lost their habitat, they lost their culture, identity and existence. The FRA 2006, in all essence tries to reverse this process of appropriation and restores the rights of the forest people. The Act not only recognizes the rights of the forest people, it also has detailed provisions to record those rights and provides a legal framework for the forest people to exercise those rights.
The powers given to the Gram Sabha (village council) at the village or hamlet level by the Sections 3 (2) (ii), 4 (2) (e), 5 and 6 indicate a paradigm shift from the centralized system of forest management by the forest departments run by the forest bureaucracy to a decentralized system of forest governance under the aegis of the Gram Sabha and the forest rights holders.
The FRA is also clear on the nature and specificity of the rights vested to forest people. Section 3 confers (i) rights to secure individual or community tenure or both; (ii) right to hold and live in the forest land under the individual or common occupation for habitation or for self-cultivation for livelihood; (iii) community rights such as nistar; (iv) right of ownership, to collect, use and dispose of minor forest produce; (v) right to protect, regenerate or conserve or manage any community forest resource which they have been traditionally protecting and conserving for sustainable use; (vi) rights which are recognised under any State law or laws of any Autonomous District Council or Autonomous Regional Council or which are accepted as rights of tribals under any traditional or customary law of the concerned tribes of any State; (vii) right of access to biodiversity and community right to intellectual property and traditional knowledge related to biodiversity and cultural diversity; and (viii) any other traditional right customarily enjoyed excluding the traditional right of hunting.
While individual right to habitation and self cultivation is limited to four hectares and heritable but inalienable, FRA, most importantly, confers community rights to forest resources traditionally enjoyed by the whole village or forest rights holders.

How far the implementation of FRA been successful?
The recent posting on the status of implementation of the Act presents a dismal picture. On an average, around 30 to 35 per cent of the claims filed have been recognized and recorded with huge number of rejections. Only a small number of community rights have been recorded and that also not much of the community forest resources. Some states like Bihar, Himachal Pradesh, Jharkhand, West Bengal, Karnataka, Uttar Pradesh and Gujarat have dismal records. Filing fo claims have not increased due to a lack of awareness among the forest dwelling communities spread across the country. The recording of rights have been hampered by the barriers and stumbling blocks created willfully by the forest bureaucracy not willing to let go their control over the forests and in many cases supported by the lack of general awareness of the Act amongst the administrative officials.

Status in the north east including Arunachal Pradesh
The Ministry of Tribal Affairs’ records indicate the claims have been initiated only in the States of Tripura and Assam. In Arunachal Pradesh, very recently, the Department of Social Welfare has been selected as the Nodal Department for the implementation of the Act and as reported by the State Government, various Sub-divisional, district and state-level committees have been formed but nothing more has happened. The same is the status for Meghalaya and Mizoram while Manipur has not sent any response, Nagaland is examining the applicability of the Act and the Government of Sikkim says they do not have any forest dwelling community.
The Government of Arunachal Pradesh has informed the Ministry of Tribal Affairs that the Forest Rights Act does not have much relevance in Arunachal Pradesh. The reason given that it is wholly domiciled by various ethnic tribal groups whose land and forests are specifically identified with natural boundaries of hillocks, ranges, rivers and tributaries. Barring few pockets of land under wildlife sanctuaries, reserved forests, most of the land in entire State is community land. Territorial boundaries of land and forest belonging to different communities or tribes are also identified in the same line leaving no scope for any dispute over the possession of land, forest and water bodies among the tribes.
While the response of the State Government indicates that their interpretation of the scope and objectives of the Act may not be entirely in line with the spirit of the FRA, there are apprehensions coming in from Arunachal Pradesh in terms of some provisions of the Act, impact of the Act and nature of the rights conferred apart from the general lack of awareness of the Act itself. 

Need for a collective discussion on the interpretation of the Act
In the rest of India, the forest communities including the movements and groups supporting their struggle for the last few decades feel that the FRA 2006 brings in a complete paradigm shift not only in the nature and scope of the rights conferred but also in the governance and management of forests from the hand and control of the forest bureaucracy to that of the community. For the first time, a forest legislation recognizes the rights of the forest communities to make sustainable use of the forests for their livelihood while protecting the forests, wildlife and its biodiversity from destructive practices and projects.
Any use of forests by the non forest entities and even the declaration of a national park, sanctuary or tiger reserve is subjected to the free and prior consent of the Gram Sabhas and forest rights holders and the settlement of their rights. In the case of Arunachal Pradesh where the implementation of scores of development projects mean land acquisition of community and forest lands with little legal support and clear title deeds to both communities and individuals, the FRA 2006 can uphold their rights to forest and community resources and livelihood.
But that will mean coming together to discuss and arrive at a correct interpretation of the FRA 2006, identify problems, and dispel apprehensions. We need to be aware of the Act, its provisions, its impact, its benefits and pitfalls, if any, and take a collective decision.
---
*Senior Gujarat-based activist

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