The Indian state does not recognize or defend the rights of the tribal people
On February 13, 2019, the Supreme Court issued an order directing states to evict Scheduled Tribes (ST) and Other Traditional Forest Dwellers (OTFD) whose claims over forest land have been rejected. As a result of this order, an estimated 10 million tribals and forest dwellers in various states across the country face the threat of eviction from their traditional lands and homes. The Supreme Court order was in response to petitions filed by Wildlife First, Nature Conservation Society and Tiger Research and Conservation Trust, which have argued that the rejection of an FRA claim implies that the claimant is an encroacher and not a bona fide forest dweller.
In December 2006, the Scheduled Tribes and Other Traditional Forest Dwellers (Recognition of Forest Rights) Act, 2006, was passed in Parliament. Hundreds of millions of forest dwellers throughout the country were required to file claims under the Forest Rights Act, for individual and community ownership rights over forest land.
The SC order of February 13 was immediately met with widespread protests by tribal collectives and tribal rights activists, demanding its withdrawal. Rights activists and lawyers criticised the government for not putting in place mechanisms to ensure just settlement of the claims of the tribals and forest dwellers, over the last 11 years since the Act came into effect. As a result, the Supreme Court temporarily stayed its own order on February 28, 2019.
The governments of the 21 states that have come under this order have now been asked to explain to the Supreme Court how the FRA claims were accepted or rejected. The states are: Andhra Pradesh, Assam, Bihar, Chhattisgarh, Goa, Gujarat, Himachal Pradesh, Jharkhand, Karnataka, Kerala, Madhya Pradesh, Maharashtra, Manipur, Odisha, Rajasthan, Tamil Nadu, Telangana, Tripura, Uttarakhand, Uttar Pradesh and West Bengal. They have been given time till the next court hearing in July 2019.
Many organisations working with tribals and forest dwellers have published reports which clearly bring out the utterly unjust, anti-people and arbitrary character of the state authorities in the entire process of rejection of claims , as a result of which nearly 50% of claims stand rejected as of now, according to records of the Ministry of Tribal Affairs.
How claims are filed and rejected under the FRA
The FRA recognises individual rights of tribals over forest areas, if they can prove occupation before December 13, 2005. The claims over forest lands are supposed to be processed through a three-tier system: the gram sabha, where the claims are first submitted; a sub-divisional-level committee (SDLC) headed by a government officer; and a district-level committee (DLC) headed by the district collector.
Every claim to forest land has to be accompanied by two documents as evidence. According to the law, the claimants must be granted a personal hearing before their claims are rejected, and they must be given in writing and communicated in person the reasons for rejection. The claimants have the right to appeal the rejection within 60 days. No claim is supposed to be disposed off against a claimant without giving them a reasonable opportunity to present their case.
Blatant violations of the law have been found all over the country.
State governments have arbitrarily allowed revenue officials, forest range officers and forest guards to decide on the claims. In many villages across the country forests rights committees which are supposed to verify the claims have never been formed at all! Many state administration officials have rejected claims, demanding documents not mandatory under the law.
Hundreds of claimants have been rejected in several states but they were never informed of the rejection or the reasons for it. So they never got a chance to appeal against the rejection and now are under threat of eviction. In some cases, claimants have found out later that their files have gone missing.
The Indian state is anti-people
The above facts clearly show that the Indian state does not recognize or respect the rights of the tribals and forest dwellers to their homes and sources of livelihood. Even when it is forced to pass a law claiming to guarantee these rights, the law remains an eye wash, as there are no mechanisms to ensure its implementation. There is no punishment for the state officials who violate the law.
This state does not recognize or respect the rights of the masses of workers, peasants, women and youth. It holds these out as privileges, to be given or taken away, according to its cynical political calculations. In the present case, the Central government’s plea for a stay on the SC order on eviction of the forest dwellers is clearly motivated by the need to garner votes of the forest dwellers in the forthcoming general elections.
The Indian state only recognizes and protects, with all its might, the unbridled rights of the biggest monopoly capitalists, Indian and foreign, to plunder the labour, land and resources of our people for private profit. It gives itself the absolute power to deprive the masses of people of their basic rights and take over their resources to hand over to the monopoly capitalists for highest profits. This state cannot be entrusted to guarantee sukh and raksha to any section of our people.
The Scheduled Tribes and Other Traditional Forest Dwellers (Recognition of Forest Rights) Act, 2006
"The Scheduled Tribes and Other Traditional Forest Dwellers (Recognition of Forest Rights) Act, 2006" was enacted by the Parliament in December 2006. It is alternatively called the Forest Rights Act (FRA), the Tribal Rights Act, the Tribal Bill and the Tribal Land Act.
The enactment of the FRA was the result of many years of sustained struggle by tribal and other forest dweller communities for legal entitlement to their land and homes that they have inhabited for generations. The law defines the rights of forest-dwelling communities to land and other resources, which they have been denied for decades, under the British colonial era Indian Forest Act 1927.
India’s forests provide home and livelihood to nearly 250 million people, including tribals and other forest dwellers. Forests provide sustenance in the form of minor forest produce, water, grazing grounds and habitat for shifting cultivation. For many generations these tribal and forest dweller communities have had an integral and close relationship with the forests and have been dependent on the forests for their livelihood and existence. Many of the forest resources have been communally owned and cultivated. However, the forest dwellers have never had any formal ownership or entitlement to the forest land and its resources.
The Indian state has never recognized or respected the rights of the tribal and forest dweller communities to their land, homes and sources of livelihood. The Indian Forest Act, 1927 and the Wild Life (Protection) Act, 1972 empower the state to take over any part of the forest as a “protected area”, “wildlife sanctuary” or “community conservation area”. The claims of the people living in these “protected areas” are completely dependent on the forest officials, who wield absolute authority over their lives and livelihood. They are always at the mercy of these forest officials, victims of harassment and torture, sexual abuse and extortion, with the threat of eviction, loss of home and livelihood permanently hanging over their heads. They have been completely marginalized, denied rights over the forest produce and access to their community resources.
The Forest Rights Act 2006 was promoted as a law aimed at correcting the historical injustice done to forest dwellers and their forcible eviction by the forest authorities of the state.
Proposed amendment to Indian Forest Act gives more draconian powers to the state
According to recent media reports, the Central government proposes to amend the Indian Forests Act 1927. The draft of the new Indian Forest Act 2019 proposes to not only retain but enhance policing and quasi-judicial powers that the forest officials enjoy under the original act, but provide them even more draconian powers. This includes power to use firearms with immunity from prosecution (similar to the Armed Forces Special Powers Act).
It proposes greater powers to the forest officials to deny forest dwellers the right over their forest land and forest produce (including those formally recognized under the FRA) and diminish the role of gram sabhas in deciding these rights. It also proposes that that the Central government will have the power to intervene in the states on matters of management of forestlands, overruling the state governments. It proposes to open up the forests for commercial plantations through either the state forest administration or through private agencies.
Denial of community rights over minor forest produce (MFP)
The Forest Rights Act 2006 formally grants forest dwellers community rights. These community rights include the right to collect and sell minor forest produce as well as rights to pasture, water bodies and land for community infrastructure like schools. At present, the forest department of the state exercises control over the MFP.
MFP such as tendu leaves (used in beedi manufacture) and bamboo have high commercial value and are an important source of livelihood for the forest dweller communities. Tribals and forest dwellers have been in continuous conflict with the state for the right over MFP. Several reports indicate that the forest officials of the state have been actively denying them these rights.
According to a 2010 report of the Ministry of Tribal Affairs, out of the 2.9 million claims settled under FRA, only 1.6 per cent (46,156) gave community rights and most of these did not include rights over MFP.
The reason for this is that the state, through its forest officials, wants to exercise control over all the forest produce, which is a big source of revenue for the state. Many states have nationalised certain MFP items— mahua, sal seeds and flowers, tendu leaves and certain gums. The produce accounts for 50 per cent of forest revenue, according to the statistics of the Forest Department. The states carry out this trade in MFP through cooperatives and corporations, even though state trading of MFP has been formally declared “illegal” under the FRA and the Panchayat (Extension to Scheduled Areas) Act (PESA).