The Forest Rights Act: The Ground Situation
The struggle for forest rights continues, now with the added strength
of an Act (flawed as it is) in our hands. The implementation
process for the Act has now begun in most of the major central Indian
States. Details are given in this mail.
There is a wide variation in how the Act is being implemented, as would
be expected with such a complex legislation. The organisations
are now, along with their other struggles, fighting to ensure that the
Act is implemented in a just and democratic manner reflecting its
spirit. As all expected though such things do not come easily;
and in many instances there are conscious efforts to undermine the Act
through sabotage, haste or simply illegal measures. One of
these measures, the Ministry of Environment and Forests' efforts to
spread false propaganda that rights would not be recognised in tiger
habitats, preceded the Act itself. Other types of sabotage are
taking place under the State governments, for instance in Chhattisgarh.
In most cases the sabotages are proceeding on expected lines, in
precisely the areas where the movements had pointed out flaws in the
Act and the Rules - on the fact that the requirement that people
"primarily reside in the forest" can be used to exclude most forest
dwellers; on the failure of the Rules to require that gram sabhas
should be convened at the level of actual settlements instead of the
gram panchayat; on the hurdle of ST certificates; and so on.
But the most politically crucial aspect of this Act is already evident:
the empowerment of the gram sabha as the democratic body for
determining rights. What is showing on the ground is that, even
where awareness is low and information just percolating through, people
are beginning to fight back. There are ongoing efforts to reduce
rights recognition once again to forest guards and surveyors (the same
settlement systems of previous forest laws), as we expected there would
be. But the government is facing growing resistance.
The political space created by this Act and its procedures are already
proving to be potent weapons.
Meanwhile, as has now been reported in the press, some of the hardline
conservationists, having failed to completely subvert the democratic
process, are now attempting to use the courts against the
struggle. We will be sending out a statement on the situation
Campaign for Survival and Dignity
Forest Rights Committees have been formed throughout the State,
excepting the salwa judum areas, where it appears that the government
is intent on giving rights only to those in the camps (more details on
this are awaited). Gram sabhas are being called at the panchayat
level, at extremely short notice - in some cases on the morning of the
day. The SLMC is also notified, with SDLC's and DLC"s being
created. Implementation of the Act has largely been
delegated to the Forest Department as it is claimed that the Tribal
Department does not have enough staff.
The government of Chhattisgarh has meanwhile produced a "schedule" for
implementing the Act. This requires that claims be filed from
March 1st onwards (though as per law it is the gram sabha who is to
decide when claims will start). It then has the date "March 7th"
listed next to the words "Verification of claims by Forest Rights
Commmittee". In at least some areas, such as Jashpur District,
this is being interpreted to mean that the filing of claims should have
been completed by March 7th- an impossibility by any reasonable
standard and a total violation of the Rules, which require that a
minimum of three months be given for this process. The schedule
moreover makes no mention of when the gram sabha is to pass the claims
recommended by the FRC, giving rise to a suspicion that this step is to
be bypassed entirely (in violation of the Act). Meanwhile
officials say that community rights in the Act (such as minor forest
produce, rights to water bodies, community forest resources etc.)
are not to be dealt with at all now but to be handled "later".
This gives rise to a fear that the Chhattisgarh government aims to
effectively bypass the Act process and grant pattas as per their
earlier illegal - and corrupt - "surveys", a point that is strengthened
by the fact that the government is already announcing figures of
"beneficiaries" and areas for which pattas are to be given even before
the Act is implemented.
Regarding the issue of "residing in forests", the Chhattisgarh
government has apparently requested a clarification from the Centre on
this matter. It is unclear if they have received an answer
There are other widespread irregularities, including automatically
making the sarpanch a member of the FRC, only BJP MLA's being the
non-official members of the SLMC, etc..
Finally in the salwa judum areas there are moves afoot to hold gram
sabhas inside the so-called relief camps, where only 15% of the
population is living now - a clear and total violation of the
Act. This matter is being taken up both in Chhattisgarh and in
A series of meetings and mobilisations are taking place at the district
level around the Act and organisations are intervening in the gram
The FRC's were formed in the first two weeks of February and the claims
period has begun. All gram sabhas are being called at the revenue
village level. Movements are attempting to organise hamlet level
garm sabhas and declare them under MP's PESA law. In Burhanpur
district, however, gram sabhas are being called at the gram panchayat
level, and the organisations are opposing. Forest villages and
unrecorded settlements in Burhanpur and elsewhere are being left out of
the process entirely as a result of the panchayat gram sabhas being
called, since they do not fall within the boundaries of any
There is so far not too much sign of party manipulation of the
constitution of FRC's, though government officials are not following
the guideline on minimum representation of women. The Madhya
Pradesh government is intent on issuing pattas by August / September,
and the process has begun moving at that speed. There is no
clarity from the government side on the "reside in forests" issue, but
the organisations are encouraging people to build huts etc. on their
forest plots so as to avoid this as a potential problem.
The FRC's have been constituted in many areas, though not all, often at
extremely short notice (gram sabhas being called at one day's notice
etc.). Gram sabhas are taking place at the panchayat level in
general, but many have been held at the revenue village level in
Scheduled Areas, wherever the matter was raised in protest.
Hamlet level self-declaration of gram sabhas has been rejected in some
areas by officials, but negotiations are continuing. So far there
seems to be little sign of party manipulation of the Committees, in
part because awareness is high. The forest
department is continuing to dig trenches and pits on cultivated lands
in some areas despite the Act having come into force and in villages
where JFM committees exist, the department is attempting to manipulate
the FRC selection process by getting JFMC members selected.
Finally people are facing difficulties in getting ST certificates due
to the bureaucracy involved, as anticipated, and this is becoming a
crucial roadblock in the process (particularly given the short time
The SMC, DLCs and SDLCs are yet to be formed despite the rules
requiring that SDLCs and DLCs provide information and support related
to the Act to the gram sabhas. In many areas, gram sabha meetings are
being called by taluka level officials or even field level health
officials or teachers when these officials themselves are unclear about
the provisions in the act. In a couple of districts, field
implementation has been delegated to forest officials who are saying
that only those 'living in' forests shall be eligible for the
recognition of rights.
Movements are fighting for hamlet level gram sabhas, for FRC's to be
properly constituted and for ST certificates to be awarded correctly
Government officials say the gram sabhas will be called in March.
The gram sabhas are likely to take place at the revenue village level,
with the government rejecting hamlet level GS's as impractical.
The government is also likely to try and get the gram sevaks to be
members of the FRC's on the grounds that adivasi youth will be unable
to handle the recording of claims, filling of forms, creating registers
etc. Organisations have begun constituting hamlet gram sabhas in the
areas where they work.
The State Level Committee was notified in February and all districts
have been asked to constitute DLCs and SDLCs. Four departments - Tribal
Welfare, Revenue, Forest and Panchayati Raj, are working in
coordination for implementing the Act, with the tribal welfare dept
being the nodal agency. Gram sabhas are also expected to be
convened on the 16th and 23rd of March. There were no efforts to
convene them on the 28th of February after the Ministry of Panchayati
Raj's letter was rejected as impractical. The gram sabhas here
will take place at the "palli sabha" (revenue village) level.
Forest and unsurveyed villages are being left out "for the time
being." Gram sabhas and field staff are being supplied with forms
etc. Officials claim that they will not take too strict a
view of the "reside in forest" requirement. However, intense
police repression in the wake of the Nayagarh strikes is hampering the
ability of activists to move, making it difficult to get information or
organise for the GS's.
The government had made no announcement of any kind on the Act until
the matter was raised in the ongoing Assembly session at the end
of February. After pressure was put, plans have been made
for district level trainings on March 17th and 18th and block level
trainings the following week. Gram sabhas are to be called on the
28th and 29th. Movements are working to ensure that the gram
sabhas are called at the revenue village or hamlet level rather than
the panchayat level.
Gram sabhas are to be convened in March. In two districts gram
sabhas were convened on February 28th in accordance with the MoPR
letter but no FRC's were elected, only information was supplied.
In one district and in some other areas movements and organisations
have constituted hamlet level gram sabhas. They intend to declare
them to the Collectors shortly. However, the Jharkhand CM
believes that since the State's law provides for constitution of such
gram sabhas (which however was subject to a deadline of 30 days after
the Rules to that effect were notified several years ago, as a result
of which none were actually declared), there is no problem. In
addition, since Jharkhand has not had panchayat elections, there is
confusion on who will convene the gram sabhas. The Jharkhand
government has asked for a clarification from the Centre on this
No initiative at all. In late January the government had informed
reporters that in the absence of direct instructions from the Centre
they would not act. Notwithstanding the arrival of such an
instruction in the form of the ill-designed letter from the Ministry of
Panchayati Raj on February 20th, this position is being
maintained. Now, with the Madras HC issuing a stay order on issue
of pattas on the 22nd of Feb, the government is unlikely to move on
determination of rights (which, it should be noted, has not been
stayed) without further pressure from the ground.
Despite appointment of a special officer and constitution of the State
Level Monitoring Committee, no work has started at the ground
level and none of the other committees have been constituted.
Gram sabhas were called on the 28th in many tribal areas and it appears
that some FRC's have been constituted. In some areas FRC's were
constituted by either the panchayat or the Forest Department without
calling the gram sabha at all. Gram sabhas were not however held
in North Karnataka and in Chikmagalur. Organisations have
protested, mobilised gram sabhas of actual settlements, etc. Elected
representatives and others have demanded the cancellation of the FRC's
and their re-constitution in actual gram sabhas.
Gram sabhas were called on the 28th in accordance with the MoPR
letter. Gram sabhas were called at the panchayat level, which is
a problem in some areas but not in all. FRC's were also
elected. We are trying to find out more information on how the
process took place. It appears that the forest officials were
asked to go to the villages to explain the law. From the limited
information available, there appear to be few problems in information
dissemination so far.
The gram sabhas were to be convened and FRC's formed before 29th of
February. Claims are to be received up to 31st May. The aim
is to finalise claims by October 31st. Gram sabhas are being
convened at the panchayat level on the ground that hamlet level gram
sabhas under PESA have not been constituted in the state even in the
scheduled areas. In some cases, the Panchayat area is spread over
15 to 20 kms. At an official discussion it appears that it was said
that the "reside in forests" issue will not be seen too strictly,
though apparently the AP government has now requested a clarification
from the Centre. As in the case of Chhattisgarh, the state
govt has been publicly confusing the FRA process with its own survey,
and has been citing figures for the area of pattas it will issue.
There are also moves to forcibly relocate Chenchus from the Nallamala
forests, under the garb of "voluntary" relocation - even though such
'voluntary' relocation is also illegal until the process in the FR Act
is complete. The organisations are resisting such moves, fighting
for properly constituted FRC's and otherwise building up the claims
Process has been initiated in Himachal by the department of tribal
developmentm which has issued letters to deputy commissioners of the
state's two Scheduled Tribal districts this week. The file for
non-tribal areas is in process and may be cleared soon. Further details
No movement appears to have taken place from the government level.