Chhattisgarh has become the first state to recognise forest resource rights in an urban area by bestowing these rights upon residents of Dhamtari district over 4,127 hectares of forests. Apart from that, the state government also recognised community resource rights over 5,544 hectares of forest within the core area of the tiger reserve area, reported Indian Express.
The certificates for Community Forest Resource Rights were distributed in Raipur on the occasion of International Day of the World’s Indigenous People by Chief Minister Bhupesh Baghel. Adivasis constitute 31% of the state’s population. The recognition of community forest resource rights in the tiger reserve — spread across Dhamtari and Gariyaband districts — was a long-time demand of villagers living inside the core zone, who had accused government officials of thwarting the process, as per the IE report.
In January, tribal communities of several villages were protesting Sitanadi Udanti Tiger Reserve being categorised as a Critical Wildlife Habitat. Forest officials were claiming that villagers were intruding the core zone where only tigers could exist. However, the villagers argued that they have been co-existing with tigers there for generations without causing any harm to them. Birbal Padmakar, president of the forest rights committee from Joratarai village recalled how they have been lathi charged in the past for demanding their community resource rights over the tiger reserve area but said that they were relieved that the government finally recognized their rights.
The Scheduled Tribes and Other Traditional Forest Dwellers (Recognition of Forest Rights) Act, 2006 commonly known as the Forest Rights Act (FRA) was brought about to recognise and vest the forest rights and occupation in forest land in forest dwelling communities and individual dwellers who have been residing in such forests for generations but whose rights could not be recorded. The Act recognised that the forest rights on ancestral lands and their habitat were not adequately recognised resulting in historical injustice to the forest dwellers who are integral to the very survival and sustainability of the forest ecosystem.
Chhattisgarh has also been a pioneer in providing forest land rights under FRA in urban areas. In August 2020, it became the first state to hand over urban forest land rights in Jagdalpur, Bastar when it handed over forest land rights to 11 families for household purposes.
What is a community forest resource?
Community forest resources are different from community land rights, both of which have been recognised under the Act. Community forest resource has been defined under section 2(a) of the Act as a customary common forest land within the traditional boundaries of the village or seasonal use of landscape which includes reserved forests, protected forests and protected areas such as Sanctuaries and National Parks to which the community has had traditional access.
Under section 3(1)(i), forest rights include, rights to protect, regenerate or conserve or manage any community forest resource which they have been traditionally protecting and conserving for sustainable use. Community forest rights are obtained through Gram Sabhas and it is the Gram Sabhas that regulate the sustainable use of such resources.
Community forest resources include traditional grazing grounds; areas for collection of roots and tubers, fodder, wild edible fruits and other minor forest produce; fishing grounds; irrigation systems; sources of water for human or livestock use, medicinal plant collection territories of herbal practitioners. It also includes land used for traditional agriculture or remnants of structures built by the local community, sacred trees, groves and ponds or riverine areas, burial or cremation grounds.
The Gram Sabha is empowered to regulate access to community forest resources and stop any activity which adversely affects the wild animals, forest and the biodiversity. The guidelines on the implementation of FRA issued by the Ministry of Tribal Affairs (MoTA) states that any restriction, such as, time limit, on use of community forest resources other than what is traditionally imposed would be against the spirit of the Act.
The Union Ministry of Tribal Affairs releases a monthly progress report with respect to claims received and titles distributed. However, it does not differentiate between community forest resource rights and community land rights claims, hence, it is not possible to determine how many resource rights versus land rights have been approved by the state governments.
Land rights are also defined under section 3(1) of the Act and includes right of ownership, settlement, right to hold and live in the forest land under the individual or common occupation for habitation or for self-cultivation for livelihood. Thus, individual rights are mainly for habitation or livelihood and community rights claims are also filed for using water bodies, grazing or any other traditional seasonal resource access. Community claims may also be filed for habitation of primitive tribal groups and preagricultural communities under section 3(1)(e).
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 FRA 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 states of Chhattisgarh, Odisha, Maharashtra, Tripura and Madhya Pradesh, and community rights in Gujarat, Chhattisgarh, Odisha, Maharashtra and Madhya Pradesh. Once people get the title rights, they should get the record of their rights within three months . 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 monthly progress report as of February 28, 2021, released by the Ministry of Tribal Affairs, indicates that Odisha has the highest conversion rate of claims to titles distributed; i.e., 70.76% of the claims filed were approved and titles were distributed. Other states include Tripura (60.6%), Kerala (59.9%) and Jharkhand (55.9%). At the lowest are states like Goa (0.45%), followed by Bihar (1.5%) and Uttarakhand (2.36%).
The reality of forest rights
On July 10, a rampaging mob destroyed the homes and looted properties of Adivasi Villagers in Madhya Pradesh’s Negaon-Jamniya village, even as Forest Department and Police officials deployed at the spot stood by, leaving 40 families shelter-less. These evictions were carried out even as the Madhya Pradesh high Court had ordered that no evictions shall be carried out after the Covid-19 pandemic broke out.
In January, UP Police assaulted women forest workers as they were peacefully protesting an unauthorised construction on forest land. Women forest leaders from the Adivasi and forest dwelling communities have been at the forefront of defending forest rights in Sonbhadra and have been filing community claims to forest land under provisions of the Forest Rights Act, 2006.
Lilasi village and its brave women forest rights defenders are not new to police brutality. They had been attacked in May 2018 as well when police stormed into the village and brutally beat up women and broke huts. After some key members of the All India Union of Forest Working People (AIUFWP) met key government officials to convey their grievances, police illegally detained Sokalo Gond and Kismatiya Gond and kept them behind bars for months. The two were only released after a sustained campaign by CJP, which involved moving a habeas corpus petition for production of Sokalo and Kismatiya Gond before the Allahabad High Court.
The forest workers, who are trying to protect the forest and filing their claims on their land rights, are often mistreated and have false cases filed against them. They are also dubbed as ‘Naxals’ by the police to legitimise the action they take against them.
In September 2020, Adivasis from about 108 villages had gathered at the Birsa Mundak Smarak Sthal in Adhaura block of Kaimur district simply wanting to speak to authorities and keeping their demands before them. These demands included implementing FRA, administrative reorganisation of Kaimur Valley, declaring Kaimur as a Scheduled area as per the Fifth Schedule of the Constitution and so on. The police, however, opened fire at the villagers. Seven activists were not just fired upon and injured in the firing and lathi-charged but were also picked up by the police on trumped up charges.