A study by the Rights and Resources Initiative in 2015 found that tribals in India legally hold only about 5% of the land that they use, Hindustan Times reported. Under the Forest Rights Act (FRA), in force since 2006, forest dwellers can lay claims to legal titles for the land that they use. However, the study discovered from Tribal Affairs Ministry data, eight out of ten claims were rejected last year.
While the government pushes for the Compensatory Afforestation Bill, the opposition has expressed concern in the Rajya Sabha that the Bill, if passed, will further undercut tribal rights and harm the environment, since the Bill proposes to introduce government plantations in areas traditionally demarcated for tribal usage.
Under the FRA, individuals can file title claims to the gram sabha that are then approved by a sub-divisional committee, and eventually, at the district level, by a divisional committee.
The study by the Rights and Resources Initiative, which works to ensure the rights of indigenous people internationally, suggests that the rates of title claim rejection have gone up since the NDA government came to power. However, data from the ministry shows that non-BJP states were also reluctant to grant land titles to tribal claimants. The average rate of rejection has been 54% since 2008, in a total of 3.8 million claims made since the implementations of FRA. Between May 2015 and April 2016, however, the average rose to 79%, for 2.7 lakh claims. The ministry claims, though, in an email sent to Hindustan Times, that the rate of rejection is only 47.66% and that only 23% of claims were rejected last year. This figure, however, does not take into consideration the number of claims that went unaddressed, thereby painting a misleading picture.
The responsibility of the Centre in ensuring the effective functioning of the policy also needs to be examined. The FRA requires that gram sabhas permit mining and development projects on forest land used by villagers. According to the study, however, thrice in two years, the environment ministry has overridden this requirement to exempt certain projects. In Maharashtra and Madhya Pradesh, the ministry pressed for new ‘village forest rules’ that were clearly against the legal provisions of Act.
Former Minister of Tribal Affairs Mansukh Bhai Vasava told The Indian Express that he had been replaced in the cabinet reshuffle because he had spoken his mind on unresolved tribal issues. Furthermore, Vasava said to Hindustan Times that the states were mishandling the FRA claims.
Shankar Gopalakrishnan, a tribal rights activist, reportedly told Hindustan Times:
During the UPA, FRA was a contested law with efforts by the environment ministry and government departments to undermine it. But in the past two years, bureaucracy and business lobbies are more dominant. This is reflected in several U-turns the tribal affairs ministry made on the dilution of FRA. State governments are also responsible for the high rejection of claims. But an overall pattern in year-wise rejection reflects a change in the national policy climate and the signals being sent from the Centre.
Land allotted to forest dwellers under the FRA constitutes only 10% of a possible 32 million hectares, figures from the Forest Survey of India and the census suggest. In addition, there are 8 million hectares controlled by local communities in the Northeast, where FRA has not been implemented yet.
Several other shortcomings were noticed in the study. The FRA mandates community rights over forest land, but the study found that only a quarter of the villages that qualified for community rights actually received them. The size of holdings for individual claimants was also an issue: while, theoretically, the grants can be upto four hectares, the average size of granted land is only 1.6 hectares. Furthermore, Hindustan Times reported that the NITI Aayog had said in an internal communication:
….the key features of Forest Rights Act (FRA) have been undermined by a combination of apathy and sabotage during the process of implementation…In the current situation the rights of majority of the tribals… are being denied and the purpose of the legislation is being defeated. Unless immediate remedial measures are taken, instead of undoing the historical injustice to tribals and other traditional forest dwellers, the act will have the opposite outcome of making them even more vulnerable.
On the Compensatory Afforestation Bill, Hindustan Times reported that 70 Indian and ten global organisations wrote to Rajya Sabha chairperson Hamid Ansari to plead that the Bill not be passed in its current form. The organisations collectively argued in the letter that the Bill will only serve to “empower the notoriously unaccountable forest bureaucracy to further deprive forest dwellers and tribals of their livelihoods, by forcibly undertaking plantations on their customary lands.”