TRUTHS AND FALSEHOODS ABOUT THE FOREST RIGHTS ACT

  1. MYTH: The Act will distribute 4 hectares of land to every tribal family. The Act will destroy all of India's forests.

  2. MYTH: People will take over and destroy forests through this Act. Every law is misused and this will be used for land grabbing.
  3. MYTH: The Act removes all protection from forests.
  4. MYTH: By allowing people to stay in national parks and sanctuaries, the Act will make it impossible to protect wildlife - especially tigers.

MYTH: The Act will distribute 4 hectares of land to every tribal family. The Act will destroy all of India's forests.

This Act will not give a single square inch of land to anyone. The Act only requires the government to give legal recognition to lands that people have already been farming since prior to 2005 (and, in the case of non-ST's, for the past 75 years). Sections 3(1)(a), 4(3) and 4(6) of the Act state that people will only receive rights to "land under their occupation" since prior to December 13, 2005, up to a ceiling of 4 hectares. I.e., if I am a tribal cultivating half an acre of forest land as on December 13, 2005, I will receive title to exactly that half acre - no more. If I am cultivating 10 hectares, I receive title to four of those; and if I am cultivating nothing, I receive title to nothing. No one will receive rights to new lands.  Moreover, the titles recognised under this Act cannot be sold or transferred to anyone (see section 4(4)).

Why is such a step necessary?

What are called "forests" in Indian law often have nothing to do with actual forests. Under the Indian Forest Act, areas were often declared to be "government forests" without recording who lived in these areas, what land they were using, what uses they made of the forest / land - and often without surveying whether it was forest at all. 82% of Madhya Pradesh's forest blocks, 20% of AP's government forests and 40% of Orissa's reserved forests have never been surveyed. Similarly 60% of India's national parks have till today (sometimes after 25 years, as in Sariska) not completed their process of enquiry and settlement of rights. As a result millions of people are subject to harassment, evictions, etc, on the pretext of being encroachers in their own homes. In the latest national eviction drive from 2002 onwards, more than 3,00,000 families were driven into destitution and starvation. In Madhya Pradesh alone, more than 125 villages have been burned to the ground. As the Government of India's Tiger Task Force put it, "In the name of conservation, what has been carried out is a completely illegal and unconstitutional land acquisition programme."

The Act tries to end this by ensuring that the rights of forest dwellers to the land, minor forest produce, community resources etc. that they are using are recorded and given legal sanction.

MYTH: People will take over and destroy forests through this Act. Every law is misused and this will be used for land grabbing.

Section 6 of the Act provides a transparent three step procedure for deciding on who gets rights. First, the gram sabha (full village assembly, NOT the gram panchayat) makes a recommendation – i.e who has been cultivating land for how long, which minor forest produce is collected, etc. The gram sabha play s this role because it is a public body where all people participate, and hence is fully democratic and transparent.

The gram sabha's recommendation goes through two stages of screening committees at the taluka and district levels. The district level committee makes the final decision (see section 6(6)). The Committees have six members – three government officers and three elected persons. At both the taluka and the district levels, any person who believes a claim is false can appeal to the Committees, and if they prove their case the right is denied (sections 6(2) and 6(4)).  Finally, as already said, land recognised under this Act cannot be sold or transferred. 

Compare this with the present system, where encroachment on forest land requires a bribe to the forest guard – nothing more. Legal diversion of forest land requires permission from a committee in the Central government. Any person who objects inside a forest area is promptly deemed an "encroacher" and thrown out, even when they sometimes have papers proving their ownership. This is not just true of villagers. Many of India's top wildlife scientists are facing criminal cases filed against them when they objected to illegal or corrupt practices in the Forest Department.

The question is simple: which system is more likely to promote land grabbing - a public process where ordinary citizens have a voice, or granting absolute powers to people sitting behind closed doors?  We have already seen the results of the existing system.

MYTH: The Act removes all protection from forests.

The Act does not in any way remove protection from forests. The existing laws will continue to apply, as section 13 of the Act clearly states. Indeed, the Act makes conservation stronger by giving a power to communities to protect forests as well. This power is in addition to, not instead of the power that the Forest Department and other government agencies have.

In fact it is these agencies who have become the biggest threat to forests, as a result of a colonial system of forest management that had nothing to do with conservation and everything to do with securing British control over timber. In fact, it is illegal for you or I to plant a tree in a reserved forest; but it is legal for the Forest Department to fell the entire forest so long as they obtain appropriate permissions.

This absolute power naturally means corruption. Enormous areas of forest are destroyed as a result of legal and illegal connivance by the forest authorities; between 2001 and 2006, more than five lakh hectares of forest were legally diverted (i.e destroyed) for mines, industrial projects, etc.  We would challenge Vanashakti or anyone else to show us cases of large encroachers, resorts or industrialists ever being evicted in the post 2002 eviction drive, when so many forest dwellers lost their homes and some lost their lives. 

There is no process of appeal for any of these projects, with the only check currently being the Supreme Court. How many of us have the wherewithal to approach the Supreme Court? By granting communities the right to protect forests, the Act makes it possible for communities themselves to stop destruction of forests.

Many communities are already doing so. Like in the famous Chipko movement of Uttarakhand. Like the Dongaria Kondhs in Lanjigarh, Orissa, who are fighting jail, arrests, beatings and police firings to stop a mining corporation from destroying their forests.  Several of their leaders have been killed. Like the 10,000 or more villages in Orissa and several thousand in Jharkhand who are protecting their forests on their own, often from the forest department.Like the thousands of villagers in the Nilgiris who have fought police time and again to stop government-supported land grabbing. And like the thousands of ordinary citizens who raise their voice every time environmental destruction happens.

MYTH: By allowing people to stay in national parks and sanctuaries, the Act will make it impossible to protect wildlife - especially tigers.

Recognising rights and deciding whether people should stay in an area are two entirely different things.  Just as any of us can be resettled at any time to make way for a highway, dam or other project, so too can people be resettled out of national parks and sanctuaries even after their rights have been recognised. 

In fact, the Act specifically provides a detailed procedure by which this should be done (section 4(2)).  In the past, this kind of resettlement has been done in a highly unscientific, corrupt and coercive manner.  Many environmentalists, including the Tiger Task Force, have sharply criticised these practices, since they alienate local people, lead to violent conflict and often result in people secretly returning because they have no choice if they want to survive. 

Hence, in a joint statement to the Joint Parliamentary Committee on the Forest Rights Act, several conservationists (including WWF-India, Foundation for Ecological Security, Samrakshan Trust, etc. and India's top lion expert Ravi Chellam) said  resettlement should only happen:

“through a site-specific open process, with involvement of ... multi-disciplinary experts, [which] should take place through democratic mechanisms including local community representatives. ... [Otherwise there will be] legal battles, physical resistance, and enhanced conflict.  This will seriously harm both conservation and people's rights.”

On the basis of this joint statement, the Committee recommended  a site specific, participatory and scientific procedure for relocation that has ben incorporated in section 4(2) of the Act. The Wild Life (Protection) Act has been amended on the same lines with regard to tiger reserves.   These laws now say that resettlement will only happen if:

1.People's rights have been recognised (without this, people cannot demand proper rehabilitation);
2.It is shown that continued community presence will lead to irreversible damage to wildlife;
3.The community agrees to the resettlement package being offered;
4.Full facilities are provided at the resettlement site.

This is in keeping with international standards, such as those promoted by the IUCN - the world's largest conservation organisation.