FRA and future forest governance

In December 2010, the 20-member National Forest Rights Act Committee (FRAC) set up jointly by the Ministry of Environment & Forests (MoEF) and Ministry of Tribal Affairs, to make recommendations on current and future implementation of RFRA, submitted its report after 8 months of strenuous field work and intense deliberations.

The recommendations were based on committee members’ field visits to 17 states, meetings with officials at all levels, public hearings, and meetings with activists/NGOs. The Committee invited and received a large number of inputs from the public, and ensured that all its minutes and state visit reports were put in the public domain to ensure transparency. (Visit https://sites.google.com/site/fracommittee/home)

Sharachchandra Lele, Senior Fellow at ATREE, who was a member, spoke about the Committee’s contributions towards improving FRA implementation and forest governance in the country.

Observations on FRA implementation

Regarding the implementation of the Forest Rights Act 2006, the consensus was that implementation has focused almost exclusively on granting individual rights for cultivation and habitation, and not on community rights to access forest produce and manage forests. Moreover, there were many shortcomings in the processing of even individual claims, including complete non-implementation in certain states like Arunachal Pradesh, tardy implementation in others, and incorrect rejections. One major form of incorrect rejection was the wrong interpretation of criteria for approving claims by Other Traditional Forest Dwellers.

The virtual non-implementation of community rights—which are central to long-term community-based forest governance—was due to a combination of neglect by the Tribal welfare departments and the political system, obstruction and misinformation by the Forest Departments, who are clearly reluctant to part with control over forests, and confusion between development rights and community forest rights in the minds of all officials. Only Orissa showed fairly widespread progress in implementing community rights.

Other key shortcomings in the implementation were: not delineating the boundaries of the individual claims granted; non-implementation of special provisions for Primitive Tribal Groups, nomads, and displaced persons; illegal evictions; non-implementation of provisions for converting forest villages into revenue villages; and violation of the procedures laid down for Critical Wildlife Habitat.

Key recommendations

The FRAC has made a detailed set of recommendations at multiple levels: implementation procedures, state-level planning and support, central monitoring and facilitation by both MoTA and MoEF, and specific clarificatory orders and amendments to the Rules and possibly the Act that may be necessary to ensure that the goals of this landmark legislation are achieved. Key recommendations include:

  • Clarification of criteria for accepting OTFD claims
  • Strict action against illegal evictions and post-2005 encroachments identified through a transparent procedure
  • Careful re-examination of rejected claims, reconstitution of village-level Forest Rights Committees where necessary, and the use of remote sensing and GIS technologies in a careful and transparent manner, learning from the Maharashtra experience,
  • All out efforts to implement the community forest rights provisions
  • Continuous and rigorous monitoring by a broad-based National Forest Rights Council.

Debate on revised role of Forest Department

On the other objective of the FRAC, viz., to recommend changes in forest policy and governance in light of the FRA and to define a new role for the Forest Department, the Committee had more difficulty. There was reasonable consensus within the Committee on the problem but major disagreements on the solutions.

The Committee has unanimously stated that forest policy during the colonial and first three decades of the post-colonial period had objectives that were at odds with the needs of local communities and have resulted in derecognizing or denial of their rights; that the National Forest Policy 1988 provides the basis for a sea change in forest governance; that the Joint Forest Management (JFM) experiment starting 1990 had provided some important lessons but had major shortcomings; and that the FRA had addressed basic problems of land rights and recognition of community rights, but clarification of the larger governance structure was necessary.

The Committee has unanimously recommended that the role of the Forest Department be changed to that of providing technical support and protection support, along with monitoring the provisions of the FRA and WLPA. But while the official report makes no clear recommendations on these larger governance structures, a group of ten members has made specific recommendations for setting up downwardly accountable district-level structures to supervise the role of the Forest Department. Moreover, this group has also recommended the replacement of Joint Forest Management committees throughout the country, by either committees under the FRA where applicable or similar committees constituted under a completely revamped Indian Forest Act.

The Committee also recommended that direct state control on extraction and trade in ‘nationalised’ non-timber forest products should be removed, while the focus should be on facilitating sustainability of extraction, helping collectors with price and other information, and providing support prices where necessary.

Also read
Report: National Committee, Forest Rights Act. Dec 2010
Alternative Executive Summary
Last implementation status report, as of 31 Dec 2010, on MoTA site
DGF comments and Committee members’ response

Forest Rights Act 2006
National Forest Policy 1998

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