Rights of forest dwellers: Recent SC verdict exacerbates injustice done

March 13, 2019 4:28 AM

The apex court had delivered a judgment to evict, by July 2019, the encroachments whose rights had been rejected.

forest, forest actOver 10 lakh hectares of eligible encroachments were regularised in 10 states, a majority of these were Fifth Schedule states.

By Jitendra Vir Sharma

The National Forest Policy (1988) embodies the social, economic and ecological elements of sustainable forest management. Playing a pivotal role in the policy, the social element of the policy was implemented via notifications in 1990. These notifications address regularisation of eligible encroachments, and the involvement of forest-dependent communities for management, conservation and protection of forest resources, through the institution of Joint Forest Management.

Over 10 lakh hectares of eligible encroachments were regularised in 10 states, a majority of these were Fifth Schedule states. This process, however, was halted by a judgment of the apex court in 2001. Taking cognisance of the remaining land to be regularised, India’s political leadership enacted the Forest Rights Act (2006) to undo the injustice done to forest dwellers by not recognising their rights.
The responsibility of implementing the Forest Rights Act is with the Union ministry of tribal affairs, and the tribal and social welfare departments in states. Till November 2018, 42,24,951 claims have been settled, of which 40,76,607 were for individual rights and 1,48,345 were for community rights. Additionally, more than 90% of claims have already been disposed of. A total of 18,94,225 titles have also been settled, of which 1,82,216 are individual and 72,064 pertain to the community.

The apex court had delivered a judgment to evict, by July 2019, the encroachments whose rights had been rejected.

However, despite evidence to the contrary, many right holders have had their rights rejected, due to their own ignorance and ulterior motives of the officials and Village Level Forest Right Committee. Furthermore, there is evidence that parts of the rights recognised are against the provisions of the Forest Rights Act.

The court, however, stayed its own order to evict forest dwellers, and will hear the case after further deliberation and analysis of the facts.

State governments have also been slow on the uptake and have still not conducted third-party assessment for the implementation of the Act and the rights recognised so far. A study by Maharashtra found that 15,000 hectares of forest land has been recognised against the provisions of the Act. The recent order of the apex court exacerbates the injustice done to the people, whose rights have been rejected, despite valid evidence.
A large number has had their rights recognised due to external political pressure and ulterior motives. Thus, it is imperative to have a third-party non-government agency that can assess the claims that have been recognised and rejected, using geographic information system (GIS) and remote sensing technology. This will ensure that the economically underprivileged parties are not affected adversely, along with enabling the honourable court to decide the case on its own merit.

The author is director, Forestry & Biodiversity, TERI

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