10, Oct 2020 | CJP Team
Day 2 of the CJP webinar titled Forest Rights Movement and Covid-19 saw a more in-depth discussion on the law and how its lax implementation had left millions of forest dwellers vulnerable. The webinar started with a beautiful song by the Adivasi women from Tharu tribe of Lakhimpur Kheri district of Uttar Pradesh about the struggle of the villagers of Kajaria.
CJP secretary Teesta Setalvad who was moderator of the webinar and began the session saying, “At the time of independence, forest dwellers were given their rights in the 5th and 6th schedule of the Constitution, 56 years later they were enacted as forest laws.” But apart from these laws, there are several on paper laws like the Forest Rights Act,1927, that still act as a barrier. “Around 40 crore people in India have a direct or indirect connection to the forest. The British colonists had exploited over 150 tribal communities, the impact of which is visible even after 70 years of independence when rights are not given to the people who are actual residents of the forest,” said Setalvad. Apart from the 2006 Forest Rights Act, it is also important to understand other laws like the Panchayat Act and many others to have a better idea of the rights of the forest dwellers.
Among its four pillars of action, the land and livelihood rights of Adivasis and traditional forest dwellers, is one. CJP, with its expertise in navigating cases of human rights violations in the courts and beyond has been active on the issue; partnering with the All India Union of Forest Working Peoples (AIUFWP) since 2017 to battle any setback to these rights in the courts. This includes legally fighting back against malicious prosecution of leaders of the community and defending the Forest Rights Act, 2006 in the Supreme Court. We stand with the millions of Forest Dwellers and Adivasis whose lives and livelihoods are threatened. Please support our efforts by donating here.
Sanjay Garg: Adivasis have always protected forests
The first speaker for the day was Sanjay Garg who is an MLA from Saharanpur and for the last two decades has been an active member of the All India Union of Forest Working People (AIUFWP). He believes that there is a need for strong political will to bring about a change and provide rights to forest dwellers. He said, “On one hand, we talk about forest rights and on the other hand, we destroy the forest by funding corporations to establish in that area. The exploitation by the British proved extremely hazardous for our forest resources.”
In 1927 the Forest Rights Act was passed with the purpose to exploit Indian forest resources and export them to the UK. But the condition after independence was no better, the problematic law continued to exist, and in 1972, the Parliament made a law allowing to grant a licence for hunting. This step shows the intention and indifference of the government towards forest rights.
The bureaucratic hurdles do not stop here. Even after the Forest Rights Act 2006 was passed, a lobby of people with vested interests allegedly prevented its execution until January 1, 2008. In 2012 there was a demand to rethink the definition of collective and community rights. A demand was made that the right to non-timber products like bamboo, wax, honey etc. be given to the forest dwellers to make them self-sufficient, especially in the times of crisis, and be able to generate more livelihood. But this recommendation has still not been implemented.
“Adivasis have always been working to develop the forest and bring in better and sustainable measures to prevent the exploitation of resources,” said Garg adding, “The state of democracy is transforming it into a corporatocracy.” The forest officers in the status quo are still working with the British ideology and an urgent sensitisation is needed. Garg encouraged people to form associations and protest this exploitation. Garg has also raised his voice in the Vidhan Sabha against the improper conversion of some villages to revenue villages and to stop the abuse of rights of the forest dwellers.
Advocate Mihir Desai: The is a need for greater action by people and courts
The second speaker of the day was Senior Advocate Mihir Desai, who has been at the forefront of several legal campaigns to empower ordinary citizens and defend their rights. Advocate Desai touched upon the following laws that are pertinent to the subject of forest rights:
Mines and Minerals (Development and Regulation Act), 1957: As mining mainly happens in the jungles it affects the life of the people living there. The original act allowed only 10sq km of land to be allotted for mining but the amendment in 2015 removed the 10sq km limitation and now any amount of land can be given for mining by the government.
Compensatory Afforestation Fund Act, 2016: It promotes funds collection to replace forest land with agricultural land without the concurrence of the local people.
National Waterways Act ,2016: 111 waterways are included under this act. Infrastructure projects will be developed on these water bodies and complete commercialisation will take place leading to obstruction of life and livelihoods of people living along the banks.
Environmental Impact Assessment Act, 2006: According to this law, when anyone wants to construct any infrastructure project, they will have to take permission from the government, after which the government will put together a report assessing the amount of harm that will be caused to natural resources if the project is greenlighted. The report will be subject to a public hearing in the districts that can get affected by the project and then be assessed by an expert committee. But after 2006, there were several dilutions to the law. Earlier the act stated that to carry out a project within 10 kms of the national park, one needs to take the permission of the central government. But this was later reduced to 5 kms. Moreover, while initially for the renewal of lease a reassessment was required, but this clause was later removed. The clause of public consultation was also scrapped. Subsequently, several other dilutions were also made to act and on March 20, 2020, the government declared that they will scrap the act of 2006 and introduce a new notification. The notification of the new Environment Impact Assessment Act is allegedly exploitative in nature, and has invited scathing criticism.
Advocate Mihir concluded by saying that he believes that the court is not doing enough, and there is a need for people to push for stricter action against those who threaten our forests and environment.
To this Teesta Setalvad said that CJP and AIUFWP have filed an opposition to the EIA draft.
Prof. Geetanjoy Sahu: Social activists are the ones ensuring implementation of FRA
Next up was Prof. Geetanjoy Sahu from Tata Institute of Social Sciences (TISS). He is one of the first people to connect the fight of land with the fight of the forest. He mainly spoke on the two major issues:
- The process at the micro-level situation
- Condition of places where FRA 2006 was implemented
Prof. Sahu said, “Though the Ministry of Tribal Affairs (MoTA) is the main nodal ministry for the implementation of the Forest Rights Act (FRA), but the major implementation at the ground level is done by the social activists.” He pointed out ignorance of the government towards tribal rights by giving an example of the state of Jharkhand which was formed in the year 2000 but till date does not have a Ministry of Tribal Affairs.
In 2014 a report was released by Community Forest Rights Lending Advocacy, which states that only 3% potential of this act is recognised and only 20 states have implemented the FRA and with no Union Territory included. The FRA stated that a maximum of 10 acres of land can be availed for individual forest rights and for community forest right there is no limit but the numbers show that the national average for individual forest rights is only 2.18 acre and for community forest rights it is 115 acre. The data further states that since some years there has been no SDLC DLC meeting in the central India belt.
Section 12(a) of the Act states that whenever a claim for land rights is rejected the reason for the same has to be given in writing but there have been numerous incidences of arbitrary rejection of claims. Around 1.9 lakh individual forest claims and 76,000 community forest claims have been granted by the Ministry of Tribal Affairs out of which 70-80% individual claims have been given from the state Chhattisgarh, Odisha, Maharashtra, Tripura and Madhya Pradesh and community rights in Gujarat, Chhattisgarh, Odisha, Maharashtra and Madhya Pradesh. Once people get the title rights, within 3 months they should get the record of their rights. Section 16 of the FRA states that the state departments should take efforts to integrate several department schemes, but even these leading states have been suffering to get the rights. In the majority of the places, except for some parts of Maharashtra, state departments are not making sufficient efforts like providing appropriate irrigation techniques or planting trees.
The National Crime Record Bureau (NCRB) from 2014 onwards added environmental crime in its annual report. According to the report, 70% of the environmental crimes are done under FRA 2006 and Wildlife Protection Act, and around 85% of the complaints filed against forest dwellers, are illegal because of the ignorance of people. Basically, these “pro-environment laws” are being used to harass forest dwelling communities. For example, when they clear land for cultivation, they are accused of deforestation.
CJP is familiar with one particularly disturbing instance on May 18, 2018 where 12 Adivasi women forest workers were detained on trumped up charges of chopping trees at a government afforestation project in Lilasi. The women forest workers were also accused of attacking police and forest department officials with axes and sickles when the officials tried to stop them. They were taken to Nevarpur thana and harassed throughout the day. Then on May 22, the police attacked the women again, this time they were peacefully going about their daily chores in their homes, cooking and some even feeding children. Many women were physically assaulted in the attack including Kismatiya Gond who suffered head injuries. CJP and AIUFWP had moved the National Human Rights Commission (NHRC) in wake of this horrifying attack by a vindictive regime. Following this the NHRC had ordered the District Magistrate to probe the incident and submit a report.
Prof. Sahu emphasised that Maharashtra has been setting a benchmark for all other states by becoming the first state to recognise NTAP rights after providing community rights. Earlier there was a difficulty in implementation of rights under FRA but since 2012 all the rights were given to the gram panchayat in Maharashtra since then a lot of empowerment has happened, people are showing for interest towards plantation, women and landless labourers are being included in the decision-making process and an emphasis is made on a grassroots driven process.