Wednesday, February 2, 2011

Forest Act to be amended

Proposal to legalize collection of livelihood items

Sopan Correspondent / New Delhi

Implementation of the Forest Rights Act, 2006 which gave recognition to the rights of tribals on the forest resources has been extremely poor, an official panel of the government has said.

The national committee, established in April last year by the tribal affairs and environment and forests ministries, visited 17 states in seven months and released its report early last month with its findings. “Our site visits show the implementation has been terrible and monitoring has not been good enough,” said N.C. Saxena, who headed the committee and is also a member of the National Advisory Council (NAC) which sets the social agenda for the central government.

Ironically, the panel has found poor implementation even as the landmark Forests Rights Act had overturned several colonial-era laws in India that denied forest dwellers entitlements to land and other resources. The Scheduled Tribes and Other Traditional Forest Dwellers (Recognition of Forest Rights) Act of 2006 was notified on 1 January 2008.

The panel found that implementation of the law is yet to begin in 11 states and said that its enforcement regarding community rights has been particularly poor. The committee found that a whopping 1.5 million hectares out of India's 70 million hectares of forest land have been allotted to Individuals by various state governments. The number of claims processed is very low in Gujarat, Jharkhand and Tamil Nadu, the committee found.

A big obstacle in implementation has been the way “other traditional forest dwellers” have been defined in the law. The definition says a traditional forest dweller is one “who has for at least three generations prior to the 13th day of December 2005, primarily resided in and who depends on the forest or forests land for bona fide livelihood needs”. Many states have been interpreting the definition as occupation of land rather that residence.

In the backdrop of the report and in a bid to win the hearts of forest-based communities, the government has decided to de-criminalize the collection of traditional livelihood items from the forests in an amendment to the Act to be brought about in the next session of Parliament.

The move comes as the Saxena committee found several state governments guilty of using the three-year-old Forest Rights Act to distribute forest land to individuals. The Committee said that instead of conserving forests and tribal rights, many states have used the act as an opportunity to gift forest land to landless people. Individual allotments, while allowing poor tribal and non-tribal families to own plots, are more likely to reduce the forest cover instead of conserving it which is one of the aims of the act.

The 20-member committee, comprising mostly civil society activists, was formed eight months ago to study the implementation of the landmark Forest Rights Act notified in January 2008. The act was conceived in response to tribal unrest and was designed to correct the “historical wrongs” represented by the Indian Forest Act of 1927 which provided backing for commercial extraction and resulted in the alienation of forest-dwelling people.

Thousands of cases are registered by state forest officers against tribals every year for minor reasons, said Tribal affairs minister Kantilal Bhuria. “In some cases, we have seen that tribals trying to drive away honey-bees by smoke have been booked for trying to set fire to the forest and put in jail for 3-4 months,” he said.

Environment Minister Jairam Ramesh said legalizing the collection of "livelihood items" by tribals will help to curb disaffection and recruitment into armed insurrectionists such as the Maoists. “In the forthcoming session of Parliament, I hope to introduce these amendments. It is Section 68 of the Indian Forest Act (IFA) 1927 and the main purpose of this amendment is to end the harassment of tribals and ordinary people by local forest officials,” the minister said after receiving the report.

As per the figures, 60 per cent of India's forest area is in 180 districts of the country which have a very substantial tribal population and 250 million people depend on forests for their daily livelihood. It has been seen that the tribals, who get the rights are not going to de-forest but actually conserve it as they get their livelihood from the area. The minister himself said that the tribals can no longer be looked upon as enemies of forests and such a model of forest management has to undergo a dramatic change.

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