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Rampant? Illegal distribution of land titles of India's forest areas to 'ineligible' claimants

Counterview Desk
In a representation to Prime Minister Narendra Modi, as many as 63 former Indian Forest Service (IFS) officers, referring to the Scheduled Tribes and Other Traditional Forest Dwellers (Recognition of Forest Rights) Act 2006 -- or Forest Rights Act (FRA) -- have regretted that Forest Dwelling Scheduled Tribes (FDST) and Other Traditional Forest Dwellers (OTFD) are facing gross injustice because of the misuse of FRA across India. 
"The authorities under FRA have exploited ambiguity and guidelines issued by Ministry of Tribal Affairs", with gram sabha meetings being conducted "repeatedly mainly to give patta/titles to ineligible claimants and regularize encroachments", they said.
The representation underlines, the tribals and other forest dwellers  are also facing huge loss of forests "due to Individual and  Community Forest Rights being because of gross violation of Forest Conservation Act 1980 in various states."

 Text:

 We are a group of ex-IFS officers watching with extreme concern the illegal distribution of titles of forest rights over forest lands and causing irreversible damage to the forest land including wildlife and forest resources. This is done in the garb of Forest Rights Act 2006 and in utter violation of Forest (Conservation) Act 1980 (FCA), Indian Forest Act 1927 and Wildlife Act 1972. 
 Parliament legislated the historic Scheduled Tribes and Other Traditional Forest Dwellers (Recognition of Forest Rights) Act 2006 (FRA) to recognize and vest forest rights on forest lands only in the specifically defined Forest Dwelling Scheduled Tribes (FDST) & Other Traditional Forest Dwellers (OTFD) and their communities. 
 For recognizing forest rights and grant of title of forest rights on forest lands, the claimant must establish possession of forest land as on the cutoff date of 13.12.2005 and also on 1-1-2008 as stipulated under FRA 2006. To establish these as well as eligibility, elaborate list of evidences is given in Rule 13(1) of FRA Rules 2008 which ranges from satellite imageries based scientific and impartial evidence to even oral evidence of village elders reduced in writing. 
 States started the implementation of FRA from 2008 in right earnest but simultaneously fresh encroachment of forest lands by unscrupulous elements got accelerated since the encroachers found a great option in the section 4(5) of FRA which mentions that the claimants cannot be evicted or removed from forest land till the process of forest rights recognition is complete. People encroached overnight and immediately submitted a claim under FRA to the Gram Sabha making the forest department simply helpless in the matter.  
 Apparently for political dividends, some politicians promised to regularize such encroachments especially before elections to local bodies and state assembly. Just to quote one example, enclosed is a letter written by a former Principal Chief Conservator of Forests and Head of Forest Force, Telangana, to the State Government on how Ministers, MPs, MLAs and different political parties were publicly promising grant of pattas/titles to post 2005 encroachments too in violation of FRA resulting in encouragement to encroachments and attacks on forest officials. 
Management rights are being granted to ineligible communities in all kinds of forest lands and even inside Tiger Reserve areas
In recent years, the authorities under FRA have exploited ambiguity and guidelines issued by Ministry of Tribal Affairs. Gram sabha meetings are conducted repeatedly mainly to give patta/titles to ineligible claimants and regularize encroachments made after 13.12.2005. Surprisingly after 16 years of the Act, in some states ineligible claims extending over lakhs of acres of forest lands are being admitted in violation of FRA and FCA 1980, and primarily on the strength of evidence of village elders while discarding satellite imageries and other public documents listed under Rule 13(1). This is causing gross injustice to the eligible tribals and forest dwellers and is damaging their future for all times to come since huge number of ineligible but powerful people will continue using the resources meant for the genuine beneficiaries under the Act. 
As regards community rights, ineligible communities (with people other than FDSTs and OTFDs) have been granted rights without specifying ‘extent’ along with ‘nature’ of the community rights. The uncontrolled extraction under such grants is jeopardizing the sustainability of forest resources as the practice is akin to killing of golden egg-laying goose for quick money. State of Forest Report 2021 by Forest Survey of India has reported that there is a loss of 10,594 sq. km bamboo bearing area in the country between 2019 and 2021. Additionally, in clear violation of sections 3(1)(i) and 4(3) of the Act, management rights are being granted to ineligible communities in all kinds of forest lands and even inside Tiger Reserve areas; some glaring examples being in Chhattisgarh, Maharashtra and Karnataka.
Sir, the illegal recognitions are nothing, but a quietly sponsored encroachment backed by powerful people into the rights of genuine Forest Dwelling Scheduled Tribes & Other Traditional Forest Dwellers and their communities. In the process, the forests which are not only a source of their livelihoods but also provide life sustaining eco-services to one and all, are getting wiped out.
 We request you to kindly take immediate cognizance of this extremely serious matter and kindly issue appropriate instructions to all concerned to ensure that FRA is implemented strictly, illegally granted rights are cancelled, and forest rights are vested only in the FDSTs & OTFDs and their communities and not in encroachers.  
 ---
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